Read was born in Winnebago, Minnesota. His one sister, Mary Jo, became a professor of geography at Eastern Illinois University. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Northern Iowa (called Iowa State Teachers College at the time) in 1925, a master's degree from the University of Iowa in 1926, and studied at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar from 1928 to 1931.
He was a repeated contributor to American Speech by 1931; his first extended work, Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America: A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary, was privately published in Paris in 1935 since its description of bathroom graffiti was considered too racy for American publishers. It was eventually published in the United States in 1977, under the title Classic American Graffiti, ISBN 0-916500-06-3. Since 9138, he had been working on a dictionary of Briticisms, but was never able to achieve it throughout his life.
During World War II, he did his service with the Military Intelligence Division working on an American Military Definition Dictionary and Military Phrase Books. He was a chaired professor at Columbia University in New York City from 1945 until 1975.
Allen Walker Read unveiled the actual origin of the work "OK" a series of articles published in the magazine American Speech between 1963 and 1964. He also discovered how the Rocky Mountains were called the Northern Andes in 1804. He traced the origin of the word Dixie, Podunk, and attributed the first use of " the almighty dollar" to Washington Irving. He wrote the entry "dictionary" of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He studied euphemisms, graffiti, slang, pig Latin, double talk, adult baby talk, ...
- Head of the International Linguistic Association
- 1980: President of the Semiotic Society of America
- Who Was Who in North American Name Study Archived 2012-04-15 at the Wayback Machine, American Name Society, accessed February 15, 2007.
- The Times, November 8, 2002, obituary.
- Luther, Claudia (January 12, 2011). "Obituaries. ALLEN WALKER READ, 96, 'OK' ETYMOLOGIST". South Coast Today. Retrieved July 3, 2017. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- Beth, Mary; Jolley, Laura R. (February 2019). "Allen Walker Read Papers" (PDF). The State Historical Society of Missouri. Retrieved 26 November 2020.
- Martin, Douglas (2002-10-18). "Allen Read, 96, the 'O.K.' Expert, Is Dead (Published 2002)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-11-26.
- "October 24, 2002 - Allen Walker Read / 'O.K.' - 2002-10-23". VOA. Retrieved 2020-11-26.