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The History of the Word "Okay/OK" And Why The World Uses It

Weird History | March 23, 2021

Chou "An" Chun-An makes an "okay" sign with his hand at the League of Legends World Championship in San Francisco. (Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games via Getty Images)

"Okay" is one of those words that is so much a part of our vernacular that we hardly give it a second thought, but where did it come from? There are a number of theories, from Civil War–era biscuits to ancient languages, but the truth is that it was probably a silly joke among 19th-century yuppies.

Text-Speak In The Pre-Texting Era

In the late 1830s, the young, educated elites thought it was uproariously funny to intentionally misspell words, which then became acronyms that they used for slang. For example, "no go" became "know go" and then "K.G." It was oddly similar to the text-speak abbreviations that we use today, e.g. B.R.B. and O.M.G. The only difference was that only an inner circle of those in the know (or "no," as the case may be) were in on the gag.

Charles Gordon Greene, editor of the Boston Morning Post, was one such hip youth. On March 23, 1839, he ended a short article in the newspaper with the letters "o.k." next to the words "all correct," apparently intended to convey the humorous misspelling "oll korrect." By the end of the year, the acronym was a linguistic phenomenon.

Imperial print of Martin Van Buren. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons)

Old Kinderhook

Although the March 23, 1839 edition of the Boston Morning Post marked the first time the acronym was published, a number of coincidences have muddled its origin story over the years. During Martin Van Buren's 1840 presidential campaign, he based a number of his political slogans around his nickname, "Old Kinderhook," which referenced the town in upstate New York where he was born and conveniently shortened to "O.K." It's likely that Van Buren was aware of the acronym as a contemporary slang term and the trend of misspelled acronyms in general and banked on its recognition by wealthy, educated voters, though it wasn't enough to get him reelected. Apparently, O.K. wasn't okay.

Around the same time, the railroad was changing the American way of life, and according to legend, a freight clerk named Obediah Kelly who was tasked with checking the freight as it was being loaded marked the documents of freight that has passed his inspection with his initials. Workers along the rail lines understood that if they saw an "O.K." on a document, the freight was on the level, and this is supposedly how the acronym worked its way through the unwashed masses. It might have also been a popular Civil War–era biscuit from the Orrin Kendall company, nicknamed "O.K. biscuits" by soldiers, that contributed to the rise of "okay."

Cathedral of Les Cayes, Haiti. (M. Eriksson/Wikimedia Commons)

Borrowed From Another Language

Incidentally, many other languages boast expressions that are eerily both phonetically and semantically similar to "okay," some of which predate that Boston Morning Post article. Greek has ola kala ("it is good"), Scottish has och aye, French has aux Cayes ("from Cayes," a Haitian port renowned for its delicious rum, which eventually came to signify anything high quality), the Choctaw Indian language has okeh ("it is so"), and several West African languages have similar words meaning "alright" or "yes, indeed."

Whether or not "okay" has its roots firmly in the English language, the word has definitely wormed into others by way of it. It's not uncommon, thanks to globalization and the worldwide export of American culture specifically, to hear speakers of Russian, Italian, Japanese, and Arabic slip an "okay" into their dialogue.

Tags: language | politics | Weird Historical Facts

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.