Saturday, November 28, 2015

How OK became OK

OK. Okay. Okie. Okie-dokey. K. Kay.

In the English language, two letters, "O" and "K", have somehow combined to convey, at different times, acceptance, acquiescence, mediocrity, averageness, excitement, and a variety of other meanings. The pronunciation has even been bastardized to give us more modern versions of the phrase, like "okay" or the lazy "K" often seen in modern texting and internet language.
America's two most famous letters?

But where did this come from? How did two stand-alone letters, O and K, combine to have so many different meanings? It turns out, OK starts with a sarcastic newspaper article, was run with by an early American president, and the American people took it from there. OK?

Origins of OK

Before I get into the most widely-accepted story behind the origin of "OK," let us lay out a few other proposed ideas for where the phrase comes from. These include:
  • OK comes from the Choctaw Native American word "okeh," which is a word that translates to "it is so." Evidence for this includes that "okeh" was an alternative spelling for "OK" in dictionaries like Webster's as late as 1913. Another piece of evidence is that the Choctaw were in frequent contact with Americans in the decades leading up to the story that is often cited as the birth of "OK." Linguists also note the frequency with which English speakers in contact with foreign languages often assimilate loan words from those languages.
    Choctaw Indians, possibly saying "okeh?"
  • OK comes from the Bantu/Wolof word "waw-kay" or the Mande word "o ke." Both of those words sound almost identical to "OK," and translate to "yes indeed." And both languages are West African (the Mande people were also called Mandinke, which is where the Southern word "Mandingo," a slave prize-fighter, originates). Obviously, there would have been a heavy West African presence in the United States at the time that "OK" was born, thanks to the continued existence of slavery. Linguists do not give this idea as much credit as the Choctaw origin story, but it is interesting.
    The Bantu area of Western Africa, source of "waw-kay."
  • A few other origins have been proposed, because they sound similar, have similar meaning, or use the letters "O" and "K." These include the Scottish phrase "och aye" (oh yes), the Greek "ola kala" (all good), the Latin "omnes korrecta", or the German "alles korrekt."
  • There are also a few non-linguistic ideas proposed, including shipbuilders marking wood as "outer keel" quality, which meant that it was of high enough quality to be seaworthy on the outer shell of a ship.
    The outer keel of a ship, which had to be of high quality, Outer Keel wood.
  • Another non-linguistic proposal was that Civil War soldiers would carry signs with a zero and a "K", or "0K," when returning from battle, which meant that none had been killed. This is an interesting thought, but one that does not make sense time-wise, because all of the other theories pre-date the Civil War by at least thirty years.
Having looked at the other proposed backgrounds for "OK," they seem like realistic explanations for the birth of OK as well. This is just my theory, but maybe, all of these theories combined to make OK so successful. Maybe there was no sudden "birth" of OK, but rather, it evolved from a number of different sources to become that most flexible of English words. Or maybe, the modern OK was suddenly created one day, and the fact that so many other languages and cultures had very similar phrases made it possible for America, the ultimate ethnic and linguistic melting pot, to so widely accept the new word. Regardless of whether it appeared out of the blue one day, or whether it slowly evolved, it cannot be denied that the word has become massively important to the English language.

OK in Print

The most commonly cited origin story for "OK" comes from a 1839 Boston newspaper article and a strange pair of related language trends that existed in America at that time. These two language trends were ones we might find strangely familiar in modern America: intentional misspelling and shortening of words, and creating acronyms for short phrases. An example of this would be the phrase "oll write" (all right) and the shortened acronym "o.w." Apparently this trend was considered very humorous at the time, and was popular in spoken language for as much as a decade before it began appearing in print in 1838. But none of those phrases survived into modern language, leaving space in our vocabulary for such beautiful phrases as "LOL" and "BRB." None of the phrases, that is, EXCEPT for one.

That one phrase that survived the abbreviation fad was "OK," which made it's first undeniable appearance in print on March 23, 1839 in the Boston Morning Post. The article was written by Charles Gordon Greene. It was about, and this is true, the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, and contained this sentence:
"The 'Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells,' is one of the deputation...would have his 'contribution box,' et ceteras, o.k.-all correct- and cause the corks to fly..." 
While the sentence is difficult to understand without context that I cannot provide, it does use the word OK, the first time it was definitely used in print (different historians have claimed they have found earlier examples of the word, but none of these are as definite as the article from the Boston Morning Post).

The historian Allen Walker Read, who discovered this article, wrote a series of articles about the history of "OK" in the 1960s. In his article which lays out the discovery of the Post article, Read also revealed several other newspaper articles containing"OK." All of these articles were later than the Post one. Read made an interesting point: the first article explained what OK meant by adding "-all correct-" as a gloss. A number of the later articles he showed also explained what OK meant, which glosses such as "oll korrect" or "ole kurreck." But he also showed five articles that did not have any explanation, which Read took to mean that the phrase was common enough that it no longer required explanation. OK was apparently gaining popularity by 1839, enough to make it into newspapers. But it needed one last push to cement it permanently in the American lexicon. It would get that push in 1840, with help from a doomed presidential bid and some excellent political name-calling.

Old Kinderhook

Martin Van Buren was the eighth president of the United States. He was short, Dutch, balding but with a huge set of what would later become known as "sideburns." He was sharp-witted and funny, and was fond of wearing bright, fancy clothes. Van Buren does not get a lot of recognition as president, because he only served one term, and the most notable things that happened during his presidency were the first great economic depression in American history and a lack of action on slavery. But Martin Van Buren had a number  of notable achievements and firsts during his long career, which include:
The Fox of Kinderhook, eighth president Martin Van Buren.

  • He was born in 1782. This means that he was born in America, not in the British American colonies. When he became president in 1837, he was the first American president who had been born an American, and not a subject to the British crown.
  • Van Buren was born in the predominantly Dutch town of Kinderhook, New York, to Dutch-speaking parents. New York in that time period had a heavy Dutch population (New York City was originally called New Amsterdam). This meant that Van Buren grew up speaking Dutch, and was ethnically Dutch. This makes him the first (and only) president whose first language was not English, and the first non-Anglo president.
    Kinderhook, New York.
  • As a young man he was a protégé of fellow New Yorker (and the subject of my last article) Aaron Burr. He spent significant time in his late teens and early twenties in a circle of friends who were devoted followers of Burr. In fact, Van Buren served as the lawyer for the man who served as Aaron Burr's second gun in the famous duel with Alexander Hamilton that ruined his career and ended Hamilton's life. The close relationship with Burr, and a slight resemblance to him, led to rumors later in Van Buren's career (rumors enhanced by the loose tongue and quick wit of Van Buren's greatest rival and sixth president John Quincy Adams) that he was in fact Aaron Burr's bastard son. This rumor almost certainly has no basis in fact, and did not affect Van Buren's career.
    Martin Van Buren's mentor, and possibly father, Aaron Burr.
  • The experience Van Buren gained from his relationship with Burr would eventually be transformed into the birth of the modern Democratic Party. Burr had been exceptionally talented at uniting a variety of politicians to work together for a common cause. Van Buren took what he learned and became the architect of a highly-refined political machine that within a decade was competing in and winning national elections, starting with Andrew Jackson in 1828. Many people believe that Van Buren learned from and had his career boosted by Andrew Jackson, because Jackson was older and was president first. But Ted Widmer, one of Van Buren's few biographers, writes that Van Buren hand-picked Jackson as the first major candidate for his party to push for president. Jackson was not a career politician- he had made his fame as a general in the War of 1812 and the Indian wars. Van Buren chose the popular Jackson to be president, and once Jackson's reign as president was over, chose himself as the replacement candidate.
    The Democratic Party, founded by Martin Van Buren.
  • Before he became president, he was a lawyer, state and U.S. senator, governor of New York, ambassador to England and Secretary  of State for Andrew Jackson.
    The sign announcing the location of Van Buren's grave in Kidnerhook, New York.
  • In 1842, while campaigning for a second run for president, Van Buren became the first president to visit Chicago. While on his way, poor weather forced him to stop in the small city of Rochester. Local officials, trying to entertain the talkative Van Buren, brought along the funniest local politician they knew, a tall young lawyer with whom Van Buren traded stories well into the night. Van Buren later claimed he had never "spent so agreeable a night in my life." (Widmer, Van Buren, 147) This night spent sharing stories with a young Abraham Lincoln would be an interesting transition for the history of politics in America- the venerable former President who had come of age rubbing elbows with the Founding Fathers, sharing his experiences with the next great American politician. When Van Buren died in 1862, a year into the Civil War, a desperately busy Lincoln published a national statement expressing his sorrow at the loss of his predecessor. Despite the war, the government (besides the military) was closed the day after his death; for six months after all Union military officers wore black crape on their arm in memory of the eighth president.
    A young Abraham Lincoln around the time he would have met Martin Van Buren.
But despite this assortment of accomplishments, Martin Van Buren is best known for his nickname from the 1840 election. During his career, he was known by an assortment of nicknames, some flattering and some less so. These included: The Red Fox of Kinderhook, The Little Magician, The Enchanter, The Careful Dutchman, The Great Manager, The Master Spirit, The American Talleyrand, King Martin and Matty Van, just to name a few. But one nickname for Van Buren was probably his most enduring because of its contribution to the English language. Inspired by his hometown, Van Buren was known as Old Kinderhook.
Van Buren's friend and political ally Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson, the People's President.

In 1840, Martin Van Buren was running for his second term as president, against General William Henry Harrison, known as Tippecanoe. Van Buren had lost much of the confidence of the American people for his decision not to annex Texas and his inability to relieve the country of its first economic depression. Van Buren's supporters tried to take advantage of the trend, mentioned previously in this article, for acronyms and comically misspelled words. His supporters took one of those words, "Oll Korrect" or "OK", and merged it with Van Buren's hometown of Kinderhook, New York, calling Van Buren "Old Kinderhook." This nickname had two simultaneous effects: it gave Van Buren a nickname similar to his predecessor, the immensely popular "Old Hickory", Andrew Jackson; and it tied Van Buren to the phrase OK, which meant good, correct, or decent. Van Buren himself began to write "OK" next to his signature, and "Vote for OK" was one of his campaign slogans.
Tippecanoe, General William Henry Harrison, who defeated Van Buren in the election of 1840 and turned "OK" against him.

Van Buren's Whig opponents quickly responded with some "OK"-themed humor. They claimed that OK stood for "out of kash," "orful katastrophe," "orfully konfused," and a number of other unflattering OK-phrases. One clever newspaper even suggested that "oll korreck" was how Van Buren's friend and predecessor, Andrew Jackson, who was famous for his poor spelling, spelled "all correct" when proofreading his letters. Relating OK to Van Buren ended up not working out too well for the campaign: Van Buren lost to Harrison in a landslide, capturing only six states (The elderly Harrison would give his three-hour inaugural address in the rain, catch pneumonia, and die within a month; he was replaced by John Tyler, about whom one of my earliest articles was written.)
A campaign poster for Harrison and his running mate, John Tyler. Harrison became known as the "Log Cabin and Cider" president.

OK Today

While OK did not work well for Van Buren's presidential campaign, the campaign worked well for OK. The phrase became popular around the country because of the widespread publicity of the election. Within a few years, telegraph operators were using the phrase to signal that they had received a message, and the word was firmly embedded in American speech, never to be forgotten. Now, you can hardly go an hour without hearing someone say OK. The average American says "OK" seven times a day, two billion times a day in total. OK has also been adopted as a loan word around the world, one of America's most lasting exports to places as varied as Mexico, Japan, and Turkey. With this diverse and widespread history, I think it is safe to say OK will be okay, ola kala? Okeh!


  1. Metcalf, Allen. "Monday is OK Day." LinguaFranca, March 20, 2015. (Accessed November 28, 2015)
  2. Nuwer, Rachel. "How the Word 'OK' Was Invented 175 Years Ago." SmartNews,, November 6, 2015. (Accessed November 28, 2015)
  3. Okrent, Arika. "What's the Real Origin of "OK?" Mental Floss, April 11, 2013. (Accessed Novermber 28, 2015)
  4. Read, Allen Walker. "The Folklore of O.K." American Speech, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Feb., 1964), pp. 5-25.
  5. Widmer, Ted. Martin Van Buren, Times Books: New York, 2005,
  6. Wikipedia contributors, "OK," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed November 28, 2015).
  7. Wikipedia contributors, "Martin Van Buren," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed November 28, 2015).
  8. "Time for a little word history, OK?" Sunday Morning, CBS, March 16, 2014. (Accessed November 28, 2015)

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