Origin of OK

By Maeve Maddox

The word OK has found its way into just about every language on earth. Although it’s usually written in all capitals and pronounced as separate letters, OK is a word and not an acronym, although it began as one.

The most likely origin of OK is as an acronym for “Oll Korrect,” a deliberate misspelling of “all correct.”

In the years before the American Civil War (1861-1864), journalists thought it was great fun to misspell words for comic effect. Writer Charles Farrar Browne (1834-1867), for example, wrote political humor under the byline Artemus Ward. Abraham Lincoln is said to have been one of his greatest fans. Here’s a passage in which he takes a stand against secession:

Feller Sitterzens: I am in the Sheer & Yeller leaf.  I shall peg out 1 of these dase.  But while I do stop here I shall stay in the Union…I shall stand by the Stars & Stripes.  Under no circumstances whatsomever will I sesesh.  Let every Stait in the Union sesesh & let Palmetter flags flote thicker nor shirts on Square Baxter’s close line, still will I stick to the good old flag. 

Translation:

Fellow Citizens: I am in the sere and yellow leaf [I’m old]. I shall peg out [die] one of these days. But while I do remain here I shall stay in the Union…I shall stand by the American flag.  Under no circumstances whatsoever will I secede.  Let every State in the Union secede and let Palmetto flags float thicker than shirts on Squire Baxter’s clothes line, still will I stick to the good old flag.

 

Note: “The sere and yellow leaf” is an allusion to a line from Macbeth. The Palmetto flag was the state flag of South Carolina; it was flying over Fort Sumter on the day the Union garrison surrendered to Confederate forces. Squire Baxter is a fictional character of Ward’s invention.

Ward was not the only writer to adopt deliberate misspelling as a stylistic device. By 1839, the misspelling “oll korrect” for “all correct” had been compressed to O.K. and was familiar to newspaper readers on the East Coast at least:

Boston Evening Transcript 11 Oct. 2/3, 1839. Our Bank Directors have not thought it worth their while to call a meeting, even for consultation, on the subject. It is O.K. (all correct) in this quarter. –OED citation.

When O.K. became associated with the presidential campaign of Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), its use spread throughout the nation.

One of Van Buren’s campaign ploys was to associate himself as much as possible with the previous president, Andrew Jackson. Jackson had been known affectionately as “Old Hickory,” so Van Buren came up with the nickname “Old Kinderhook,” an allusion to the small New York town that was his birthplace. The abbreviation O.K. for “Old Kinderhook” became a rallying cry and a logo. The press lost no time in connecting the O.K. of Van Buren’s political slogan with the O.K. that stood for “all correct.” By the end of the campaign, “O.K.” was entrenched in American English throughout the country.

In addition to its adjectival uses to denote things that are “all correct,” OK is also used as noun, verb, adverb, and interjection.

Note on the word “acronym”
In general usage, acronym refers to words or letter groupings like FBI, TGIF, NATO, and LASER. Some speakers prefer to reserve the word acronym for words like NATO that can be pronounced as words and use the term initialism for letter groupings that are pronounced as a series of letters, like FBI.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


19 Responses to “Origin of OK”

  • Dale A Wood

    Please check newer articles by more recent historians. These say that “Old Kinderhook” predates all other sources of “O.K.” by several years. I read an article on this this year.
    Confusing matters, “oll” might be an adjective of Dutch origin.
    Van Buren initialed documents with “O.K.” to indicate that he had read them – neither approving them nor disapproving them, for the moment.
    DAW

  • Dale A Wood

    “I’m O.K. with Van Buren” preceded “I Like Ike” ? Maybe so….
    DAW

  • Paige

    The AP specifies that outlets should always use “OK” instead of “O.K.” (and definitely never okay).

    I love that there’s an entire scholarly book on the subject! (Metcalf, Allan. OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-19-537793-4.)

  • Dale A Wood

    That’s a nice book, but please look up articles on the subject published in 2013 and 2014. Those were the breakthroughs.
    Also, the rest of North America often disagrees with the Associated Press, which is often sloppy.
    For example: good – U.S.A., D.E.W. Line, B.M.E.W.S., G.P.S., H.E.W., H.H.S., H.U.D., D.O.D., I.T.T., T.I., U.A.E., R.C.A., S.S.T., N.Y.C., etc.
    Just because the A.P. arbitrarily omits periods does not make it right.

  • Tom Harrington

    Many years ago, I read in a history book that ‘okay’ is a adaptation of a Creek word. That Jackson frequently used it. As far as I can find, the Muscogee Nation does not claim it. There is the Creek word ‘Enkv’ which might have been mispronounced (by southern whites) and misinterpreted.

  • Dale A Wood

    The American Civil War was not during 1861 – 1864 but rather 1861 – 1865. Gen. Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865 at Appomattox, Virginia, after years of horrid, unnecessary bloodshed.
    Then President Lincoln was murdered shortly thereafter by John Wilkes Booth.
    DAW

  • venqax

    I don’t know DAW. Every source I see, including those from this year, stick with the consensus that O.K. (probably for “oll korrect” or something similar) was part of the general fad for such misspellings that was subsequently adopted by the Van Buren campaign of 1840. There are published uses of it without the MVB connection at least in 1839, and maybe in 1836, and apparently no record of Van Buren using it in the 1836 campaign.

  • Paula Bencomo

    I’ve been told that “OK” meant “0 Killed”, in other words, “zero killed”, in order to say there were no killed in a war.

  • Dale A Wood

    I think that you need to use a good Web browser to search for this year’s journal articles and magazine articles on the subject – and look in the Wikipedia, too. I am lacking access to this right now.
    Also there is the possibly that I am mistaken, and the subject is still controversial in historical circles.
    However, the article that I read was clearly on the side of Old Kinderhook.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A Wood

    Also, the personal papers of a former President are important historical documents, whether the contents were published in the newspapers or not. If Van Buren wrote “O.K.” in his personal papers in 1837, for example, that is evidence that Van Buren and his associates were speaking “O.K.” as well. His associates included a lot of future V.I.P.s – Sec. of State, Sec. of the Treasury, V.P., Attorney General, Sec. of the Navy, etc cetera. Thence “O.K.” probably appears in their papers, too.

  • Dale A Wood

    Former acronyms: RADAR (radar), SONAR (sonar), tokamak (from a Russian acronym), and several others that have become common nouns.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A Wood

    Also LASER = laser, now, and
    MASER = maser, now.

  • Tom Harrington

    With a bit of a search, I found an article by Jim Fay, PhD. Apparently he is a linguist and has researched the connection between ‘okay’ and the Choctaw word ‘okeh’. (It has alternative spellings.) It is an affirmative particle or an interjection. The word is pronounced the same as ‘okay’ and it is use in much the same way in the Choctaw language as ‘okay’ is used in English. It is documented in writing by early linguists/missionaries from 1825. There exists a story that Andrew Jackson began using it after his association with the Choctaw warrior Pushmataha who aided Jackson in the defense of New Orleans in 1815. That story was written something like twenty years later.

    You may find Jim Fay’s article, “The Choctaw Expression “Okeh” and the Americanism “Okay”, by searching for Dr. Fay and the Choctaw language.

  • Jevon

    So when the the spelling change from ok to okay?

  • Maeve

    Jevon,
    “Okay” shows on the Ngram Viewer as early as 1848, but was not at all common until the 1930s.

  • Roberta B.

    Tom Harrington – Your description jogged a memory for me of the word “OKeh” with an Indian head logo. A quick search tells me that I probably recall it from a record label that was popular in the 1950s, early 60s, and even well before then. My grandparents had, and my parents still have (somewhere in their hoard of possessions), fairly extensive record collections. So, that explanation makes sense to me. I’ll need to read the article you referenced by Dr. Fay and take a look through my parents’ things (one day) because some them might be rare………and valuable! Since phonographs and records became obsolete many years ago, I’m sure they haven’t been seen for a very long time. That means I’d need to do some very deep digging.

  • Roberta B.

    Another quick search says that retailer “Forever 21” has used the OKeh record labels on a line of clothing. I’ve never been in a “Forever 21” store (maybe saw it in a window?). So, my memory of that logo wouldn’t have come from there. I also found where the record company ran the OKeh Club in Los Angeles. Since my parents and I all are LA natives, I may even have seen the sign. I’ll need to ask Mom & Dad, maybe jog their music memories, too.

  • Aziz Laz

    I always heard O.K. was derived from some African word known as “waké”.

  • John Salacan

    Somewhere I heard that Abraham Lincoln thought that okay was a Cherokee (or similar sounding Indian tribe) word. Any info on that?

    Also, having studied a little Lenape language (indigenous people of New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and southern New York–now mostly in diaspora), I notice that the word “yeah,” which my American Heritage dictionary gives the vague derivation as being a variant of “yea,” I notice that “yeah” has a close affinity with two of their words: “e-e”, for “yes” (as an agreement), and “yuh,” for “okay” and “you’re welcome.” Possibly there’s a source or influence there–being that the early colonies and United States were concentrated in that area.

Leave a comment: