OK / okay

OK is the most successful of all Americanisms. It has invaded hundreds of other languages and been adopted by them as a word. Despite the term’s success, however, for years no one was really sure where the word came from. The origin of OK became the Holy Grail of etymology. Finally, in 1963 the Galahad of our story, Dr. Allen Walker Read of Columbia University uncovered the origin.

Read solved the mystery in a series of articles in American Speech in 1963-64. The term began as a facetious misspelling for all correct (oll korrect) in Boston newspapers in the spring of 1839. OK was the result of two editorial fads common in newspapers of the era.

One of these fads was the use playful abbreviations. Beginning in 1838, Boston papers began using a variety of abbreviations. These include:

  • O.F.M. = Our First Men
  • G.T.D.H.D = Give The Devil His Due
  • N.G. = No Go
  • S.P. = Small Potatoes

The second fad was to adopt the voice of an uneducated bumpkin, representing this by deliberately misspelling words. Frequently these two fads were combined and the following misspelled abbreviations appeared in papers in 1838:

  • O.W. = Oll Wright (all right)
  • K.G. = Know Go (no go)
  • K.Y. = Know Yuse (no use)
  • K.K.N. = Kommit Know Nuisance (commit no nuisance)

It was in this tradition that the first recorded use of OK appeared on 23 March 1839 by the Boston Morning Post:

He of the Journal...would have the “contribution box,” et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.

Three days later, on 26 March, the paper used the term again:

Had the pleasure of taking these “interesting strangers” by the hand, and wishing them a speedy passage to the Commercial Emporium, They were o.k.

And the following month, on 10 April, it published:

It is hardly necessary to say to those who know Mr. Hughes, that his establishment will be found to be “A. No. One"—that is, O.K.—all correct.

By July of that year, the term spread south to New York, and quickly gained wide acceptance after appearing in the Evening Tattler on 27 July:

These “wise men from the East”...are right...to play at bowls with us as long as we are willing to set ourselves up, like skittles, to be knocked down for their amusement and emolument. OK! all correct!

In following months, the term spread to newspapers in other cities. October saw its appearance in New Orleans and in November 1839 it hit the Philadelphia papers.

It is commonly thought that the origin of OK is rooted in the 1840 presidential election. In that year New York Democrats formed an organization called the OK Club to promote the election of Martin Van Buren to the presidency. The name of the club stood for Old Kinderhook, a nickname of Van Buren’s who was from Kinderhook, New York. Since the term was in use prior to the formation of the OK Club, it seems likely that the name of the club was due at least in part to the phrase, not vice versa. So it seems that the activities of the OK Club contributed to the popularity of OK, allowing it to survive when the other such abbreviations faded away, but it is not the source of the term.

There have been numerous incorrect suggestions as to the origin over the years. Some of the more popular suggestions as to the origin are as follows. These can all be dismissed because of lack of evidence or because OK predates the events that supposedly led to creation:

  • It stands for oll korrect, a misspelling of all correct, but attributed to Andrew Jackson. This one comes close to the mark, but still misses it. There is a record of the 1790 sale of a slave that was notorized by Jackson and the clerk recorded the sale as what appears to be, “O.K.” But this is simply a case of bad penmanship on the part of the clerk and it really is “O.R.,” for “order recorded,” a common abbreviation in ledgers of the era.
  • It comes from any one of a number of languages, most often the Choctaw word okeh. This explanation often involves Andrew Jackson again, but this time adopting it from the Indian language not because he was orthographically-challenged. A later president, Woodrow Wilson, favored this explanation, but he was wrong. As far as this explanation goes, it was not suggested until 1885 and no evidence exists that this, or any foreign word, is in fact the origin. Other languages suggested include:
    • From the Greek olla kalla, meaning all right or satisfactory
    • From the Scots och, aye
    • From the Finnish oikea
    • From Ewe, a West African language
  • It is an abbreviation for Oberst Kommandant, or Colonel-in-Command, used by Von Steuben or Schliessen during the Revolutionary War. No record of either man, or anyone until 1839, using OK exists.
  • It comes from the French Aux Cayes, a port in Haiti famed for its rum.
  • It stood for Orrin Kendall crackers supplied to the Union Army during the Civil War. Unfortunately for Orrin’s immortality, OK was in use twenty years before the Civil War.
  • It stood for Obadiah Kelly, a railroad shipping clerk akin to Kilroy who initialed bills of lading. And,
  • That it was an 1860s telegraph term for Open Key.

The variant A-OK first appeared during NASA’s Mercury program of the 1960s. It may be a combination of A-One with OK. Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, however, claims that it was originally used by Shorty Powers, the “Voice of Mercury Control,” in radio transmissions because the A sound cut through static better than the O.

(Sources: Allen Walker Read’s American Speech articles; Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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