Why We Say “OK”: The History of the Most Widely Spoken Word in the World

Ok, not to be contrary, but anyone else worry that we may be getting punked here?

Is Coleman Lowndes' clever collage-style video on the ubiquity and origins of the word “ok” a bit too clever for its own good?

His assertion that the word “ok” was the invention of waggish Bostonian hipsters in the late 1830s sounds like an Onion headline.

It’s hard to believe that clever young adults once amused themselves by bandying about deliberately misspelled abbreviations.

Also does anyone else remember hearing that “OK” could be traced to the 1840 reelection campaign of President Martin “Old Kinderhook” Van Buren?

Or folksinger Pete Seeger’s salute to the linguistic melting pot, “All Mixed Up,” which perpetuated the notion of OK as a corruption of the Choctaw word “okeh.”

Both of those explanations sound a lot more probable than a jokey bastardization of “all correct.”

Aka “oll korrect.”

As in OK, pal, whatever you say.

(That was the wittiest jape of the season?)

Etymologist Dr. Allen Walker Read’s considerable research supported “ok” as the lone survivor of 19th-century smart set wordplay, to the point where it was the lede in his obituary.

(The writer noted, as Lowndes does, how “ok” was among the first words out of astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s mouth when he set foot on the moon.)

Oookay…

If you’d like to know more, you can always delve into English professor Allan Metcalf”s book, OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, which cites the telegraph’s role in the popularization of everyone’s favorite neutral affirmative, as well as our powerful psychological attraction to the letter “k.”

(Kare for a Krispy Kreme with that Kool-Aid? ... The answer is an emphatic yes, I mean, OK, in any language.)

Related Content:

The Largest Historical Dictionary of English Slang Now Free Online: Covers 500 Years of the “Vulgar Tongue”

Read A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a Hilarious & Informative Collection of Early Modern English Slang (1785)

The History of the English Language in Ten Animated Minutes

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 24 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.


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  • Michael Towe says:

    CBC, the Canadian Radio Network had a program on the word OK.
    They actually traced it back to Africa where it was used in exactly the same way it is used today. This is an universal word accepted by all to mean just that.

  • Eamon Ryan says:

    I think it more than probable that “OK” derives from the Scots Och Aye (translation But Yes) or is that too simplistic?

  • Peter Prevos says:

    I worked in Bangladesh many years ago on a large construction project. I was in charge of materials and a local storekeeper managed the stocks for me.

    He started writing the letters MT on the doors of the shipping containers. When I asked him what it means he said: “These containers are empty, MT”.

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