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Okay Etymology: Why Do We Say "Okay" And Where Did It Come From?

1800s | March 23, 2020

As one of our most commonly used colloquialisms, "okay" is so much a part of our language and culture that it is hard to imagine a time when it wasn't used. Obviously, it had to start somewhere, but no one is exactly sure about the origin of the term. The general consensus is that it came from the election campaign of President Martin Van Buren, but "okay" may have much older roots. Let's look at the etymology of "okay."

Martin Van Buren was called "Old Kinderhook." (history.com)

Martin Van Buren

In the 1840 presidential election, incumbent Martin Van Buren faced a politician's nightmare: an opponent who was a popular war hero with a catchy campaign slogan. William Henry Harrison and his running mate, John Tyler, rallied voter support by reminding the public of Harrison's victory against the Native Americans at the Tippecanoe River in their campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." The pair also used the phrase "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" to describe themselves as humble in origin but tough enough to handle foreign affairs. To compete with Harrison's cleverness, Van Buren and his supporters began calling Van Buren "Old Kinderhook," a reference to his hometown in upstate New York. Presidential supporters soon created "O.K. Clubs" across the country to aid his campaign. 

William Henry Harrison. (britannica.com)

Harrison's Smear Campaign

As the election drew closer, Harrison launched a smear campaign against Van Buren's mentor, Andrew Jackson. In an editorial piece in the New York Morning Herald, the author bad-mouthed Jackson's education and intelligence, claiming that he was such a bad speller that he misspelled "all correct" as "ole kurrekt" (or various spellings) and wrote "O.K." on presidential documents to indicate his support. Although this is most likely untrue, the myth prevailed.

The OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. (azcentral.com)

Okay And The Wild, Wild West

Another theory about the origins of "okay" stems from the famous 1881 shootout at the OK Corral, Livery, and Feed Stable in the old west town of Tombstone, Arizona. The gunfight involving Wyatt Earp, his two brothers, Doc Holliday, and others put the town of Tombstone on the map and cemented the lawlessness of the western frontier in the minds of those outside it. News reports of the shootout ran in East Coast newspapers, thrusting the OK Corral into the spotlight across the country.

The term might have come from 1800s teen slang. (imgur.com)

1800s Humor

Harrison's joke about the phrase "ole kurrekt" had some basis in fact, but not as an expression of ignorance. In the 1800s, it was common for young, educated people to amuse themselves by intentionally misspelling common phrases and then shorten them to abbreviations. Sound familiar? Before the shootout at the OK Corral and the presidential campaign of Martin Van Buren, a March 23, 1839 article in the Boston Morning Post featured the abbreviation "o.k." alongside the phrase "all correct" in a casual, joking manner, like the Internet abbreviations of today. Other newspapers hopped on the bandwagon, perhaps as a way to appeal to younger readers.

Could "okay" have come from a Greek expression? (greeka.com)

Okay Around the World

"Okay" may not be a wholly American phrase. Some etymologists have noted that the term sounds similar to the Greek expression ola kala, which means "It is good." Greek is far from the only language to include such a phrase: the Scottish have "och aye," the French have "au quai," the Choctaw Indian tribe has "okeh." Some researchers claim that "okay" was commonly used among American slaves from West Africa.

Actor Will Smith is okay. (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

A Person's Initials

Although the answer probably lies somewhere between ancient linguistics and Martin Van Buren, many urban legends have connected "okay" to an individual person with those initials. One story points to a railroad worker named Obediah Kelly, who personally checked all the freight passing through his rail yard and signed off on the documents with his initials. According to other sources, the term originated with army biscuits that were manufactured by an entrepreneur named Orrin Kendall and shipped to Civil War soldiers, which bore Kendall's initials. Others still believe the term referenced a legendary Choctaw Indian chief named Old Keokuk, who became famous in the 1800s when the media commended him for adhering to government restrictions without putting up a fuss and suggested that all Natives could flourish similarly as long as they did everything that the government asked. This, ironically, was not okay.

Tags: American presidents | common expressions | Wild West

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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.