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.)


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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