The English language is chock full of abbreviations. While the words behind many of these shortened forms tend to feel rather obvious (like ft. for feet and VP for vice president), there are plenty of less widely known examples ― even among the common shorthands we use in everyday speech and writing.
Indeed, not everyone will have the answer if you ask what “a.m.” and “p.m.” stand for, or why we use “lb.” to abbreviate a pound. And I recently had the realization that, despite saying and texting it multiple times a day, I had no idea what OK stands for.
We typically use OK or okay to express assent, agreement or acceptance. It can also be an adjective or adverb to suggest something is satisfactory. Over time, it’s even become a verb and noun to indicate approval or authorization. OK now appears in countless languages around the world and was even one of the first sounds uttered on the moon.
Despite the ubiquity of “OK,” my informal polling of friends and colleagues found that not a single one knew the words behind those two letters.
This isn’t terribly surprising. Even etymologists were unsure of the meaning and origin of OK for many years. Some suggested it derived from the Choctaw “okeh,” meaning “it is,” while others pointed to West African origins through the Mande and Wolof languages. Additional theories involved Orrin Kendall, manufacturer of a popular army biscuit that sustained many Union soldiers during the Civil War, or the Haitian port Aux Cayes, which was famous for its rum exports.
Although some debate persists, the most widely accepted explanation among language experts comes from the late etymologist and lexicographer Allen Walker Read. A professor at Columbia University, Read examined the history of “OK” in a series of articles published in American Speech in 1963 and 1964, and concluded that it comes from “oll korrect,” an intentional misspelling of “all correct.”
“He found that Charles Gordon Green of the Boston Morning Post came up with it as a spelling joke shared by newspapers, like an internet meme from an earlier time,” etymologist Barry Popik told HuffPost. ”‘OK’ means ‘all correct.’ That should be ‘AC,’ but it’s a joke.”
Indeed, the first known published appearance of OK with this meaning comes from a piece in the March 23, 1839, issue of The Boston Morning Post, which describes the activities of a satirical organization called the Anti-Bell Ringing Society.
The above is from the Providence Journal, the editor of which is a little too quick on the trigger, on this occasion. We said not a word about our deputation passing “through the city” of Providence. — We said our brethren were going to New York in the Richmond, and they did go, as per Post of Thursday. 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.
Subsequent mentions of “O.K. ― all correct” appeared in The Boston Morning Post in the following days and weeks, and the term soon reached other papers like The Baltimore Sun and The Philadelphia Gazette.
This kind of intentional misspelling is reminiscent of more recent linguistic fads, like the use of “kewl” or “kool” instead of “cool,” and common abbreviations like LOL and NSFW.
“We think of intentional misspellings as a modern phenomenon, but I love that period of American history ― the 1830s and ’40s ― because it feels like it was a time when Americans really started having fun with their language and doing things like coming up with creative innovations,” said lexicographer and Wall Street Journal columnist Ben Zimmer. “OK grew out of a kind of abbreviation play that was popular in the U.S. and the U.K. at the time, long before text-speak. It’s funny because it combined two playful trends ― comical misspellings and this fad for making abbreviations for phrases, like NG for ‘no good.’”
Other abbreviations of misspelled words around that time included KY for “know yuse,” to mean “no use,” and KG for “know go,” as in “no-go.”
“Before OK was OW, which was from a misspelled version of ‘all right’ ― ‘oll wright,’” Zimmer added. “That shows up first in The Boston Morning Post and then OK shows up. The editor was having a lot of fun with this.”
We may have politics to thank for propelling OK to new heights, however.
“People at one point assumed it came from Martin Van Buren’s nickname ‘Old Kinderhook’ during the 1840 presidential election,” Zimmer said. “There were buttons that said ‘OK,’ so people assumed that the Van Buren campaign came up with it, but they were just piggybacking on this thing that came from Boston.”
The Democratic incumbent’s supporters even formed “OK Clubs,” some of which had the slogan “OK is OK!” But Van Buren’s Whig Party opponents used OK in a very different way ― to denigrate his predecessor and mentor Andrew Jackson.
A March 1840 issue of The New York Herald either promulgated or originated the rumor that Jackson was illiterate and believed “all correct” was spelled “ole kurrek,” so he wrote OK on official documents to indicate approval. Thus the myth spread, catapulting OK into the national conversation. And, as they say, the rest is history.
The fact that OK has managed to maintain such a hold in our everyday language in the U.S. and far beyond the English-speaking world is impressive, to say the least. The late linguist Allan Metcalf even wrote a book called “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word” and proposed a holiday called “OK Day” on March 23 to celebrate its first known citation on March 23, 1839.
“I agree with Allan Metcalf’s point in his book that it’s an incredibly improbable history ― that this two-word abbreviation coming from some funny little fad in the 1830s could take over the world,” Zimmer said. “It just goes to show that language develops in unexpected ways. The things people find interesting or amusing and want to use can come from all sorts of different sources.”
Zimmer believes looking at examples from the past, like OK, can help us understand the way people innovate with language today through memes and online slang, which still include funny abbreviations. And although we think of the language of the past as formal because we’re used to encountering it through literature and nonfiction texts, we can find more casual and fun writing in places like old comic strips and humorous newspaper columns.
“You can see that there’s this impulse that long predates modern communication and technology,” Zimmer said. “You could just use newspapers back in the day to spread these creative things. That’s fascinating to me. I love the way we can kind of see the playfulness of language through an example like OK. People have the building blocks of language at their disposal and can always come up with something new.”