Where Did “OK” Come From?

March 19, 2015

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OK, how did two little letters end up becoming one of the most common words used in the English language?  It’s OK if you don’t have any idea, because the supposed origins of the word are as varied as the many ways in which it is used.

OK, or okay, they’re both OK, means everything is all right, just dandy.  “Are you having a heart attack?”  “No, I just ate a spicy burrito.  I’m OK.”  It can be used for sarcasm.  “I’m going to win a Nobel Prize.”  A friend knowing this will never happen responds with a drawn out, “OK.” It can be used to motivate.  “OK, we’re going to win.”  The word has many other contexts in which it can be used, but when and where did it become so versatile?

The supposed origins of OK have varied from a nickname for Civil War era biscuits called Orrin Kendall biscuits to a telegraph abbreviation known as Open Key, and a French Louisianian term, “aux Cayes”, to an old Chocktaw Indian word of “okeh”, meaning, “it is so.”  One of the best origin stories says that president Martin Van Buren used it when he campaigned for the presidency.  He used the slogan “Vote for OK”, which stood for “Old Kinderhook,” his nickname.  But these were believed not to be the true origin of the word.  The real origin is believed to be actually meant as a joke.

There hasn’t been anyone that has pursued the origin of the word “OK” as much as an etymologist named Allen Read.  He literally wrote the book on where the origin of the word “OK” came from.  He discovered the word from an 1839 article in the Boston Morning Post.  The article was a satirical piece that discussed a group coming through town called the Anti-Bell Ringing Society.  The editor wrote, “O.K. – all correct,” describing what the group should do with their affairs when they got to town.  It was a play on the misspelling of the phrase “oll korrect” that was believed to be commonly used at the time. This is the first recorded instance of OK to be found.  Read even found other instances of the term “oll korrect”, as well as “ole kurreck” in his research.  These were believed to be popular terms and using abbreviations for common terms was rather fashionable, as it is today (think OMG and LOL).  It didn’t hurt that at the same time, Martin Van Buren was using his “Vote for OK” slogan, which came from his nickname “Old Kinderhook”, as mentioned before.  It’s believed this helped increase the popularity of the abbreviation OK for the term “all correct” and wouldn’t have hurt Van Buren’s slogan when people thought it meant “all correct”.  Unfortunately for Van Buren, the abbreviation didn’t help much because he lost his re-election bid in 1840.

It’s not really one hundred percent known if this is the true origin of the word, OK, but the scholars in this sort of thing believe it to be the best explanation.  One thing is for certain though, it does make for an interesting story of a word we probably use every day of our lives.

Sources: The Economist, Oxford Dictionaries, CBS News 

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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