“OK,” two characters and one word, but a hundred of interpretations and uses! It is a multi-purpose American expression which is a compulsory part of our daily communication. Use it in a moment of enthusiasm (I got an A grade! OK!), or for a lazy expression (How did the interview go? It was…OK.). It can be used as an affirmation phrase instead of a Yes (Ok, I got your message), and even a way to draw attention to a topic shift (OK. This is what we need to do now).
As ubiquitous and indispensable as the word sounds, our world didn’t know about it until 1839. There are many stories about the origin of the word, from the Haitian port ‘Aux Cayes,’ to Louisiana French au quai. Another story claims that it came from German alles korrekt or ober-kommando, while a different version says that it originated from a Puerto Rican rum labeled “Aux Quais.” Chocktaw okeh, from Scots och aye, Latin omnes korrecta and Wolof waw kay, from Greek olla kalla are also credited with its inception.
But Allan Metcalf, the author of OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, narrates another story stating that it was
“born as a lame joke perpetrated by a newspaper editor in 1839.”
He writes that on Saturday, March 23, 1839, Boston Morning Post’s editor published an attempted humorous article about an organization known as the “Anti-Bell-Ringing Society .” The editor wrote,
The “Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells,” is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have his “contribution box,” et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.
While using O.K. for “all correct” might seem a far-fetched abbreviation, this play on words was the norm back in those days. Abbreviations like s.p. (small potatoes) i.s.b.d (it shall be done), and r.t.b.s (remains to be seen) were commonplace. You can call these abbreviations the grandfather of today’s OMG, ROFL, and LOL, etc. Other abbreviation style included misspellings, like “no go” was k.g. (know go) and “all right” was o.w. (oll write). So using o.k. for oll korrect was perfectly OK.
So why did OK went on until this day, while other abbreviations died off? OK got lucky as the abbreviation coincided with the 1840 election, where Martin van Buren’s nickname, Old Kinderhook, was also shortened and used as OK, and some van Buren supporters created the O.K. Club.
As expected, the club got into political fisticuffs with Harrison supporters, so OK desecrated from its original meaning and then it was used for slandering and sloganeering. It was now being redefined as “out of kash,” orful katastrophe, out of karacter, orfully confused, all kwarrelling.
OK was then picked up by the telegraph companies as a handy abbreviation, and by 1870s, it became the standard phrase for telegraph operators to acknowledge the receipt of the transmission. Hence, its more popular meaning and use for affirmation these days.
But, as Metcalf claims, the world’s longevity may have depended on,
“the almost universal amnesia about the true origins of OK that took place early in the twentieth century. With the source of OK forgotten, each ethnic group and tribe could claim the honor of having ushered it into being from an expression in their native language.”
Got it? OK!