A History of the Word, OK

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Podcast Transcript

If you ever want to travel around the world, even if you don’t know another language, no matter where you go there is already one word you know.

It is the most ubiquitous word in the world, can be found in almost every language, and it has multiple meanings.

The good news is that you know the word already, so it requires no extra effort.

Learn more about the history of the word OK, the most common word in the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In well over 800 episodes of this podcast, this is the first time I’ve dedicated an entire episode to a single word. 

…if indeed you want to even call it a word, which is somewhat in doubt. 

The reason why such a simple word would be the subject of its own episode is because of how common the word is around the world. I can say from personal experience, having traveled to well over 100 countries, you can get by using the word OK pretty much everywhere. 

A word that is adopted into another language is known as a loanword, and OK has become as close to a global loanword as possible.

One of the unique things about OK is how it has multiple meanings depending on how it is used. 

OK can be used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, and an interjection. 

For example, as a noun, it could be used in the following way:

“We got the OK to go to visit the restaurant.”

As a verb, you could say the following:

“We need to OK the reservation at the restaurant.”

As an adjective, you would say:

“We went to an OK restaurant.”

As an adverb, you would say:

“The restaurant is OK.”

Finally, you can use it as an interjection, such as:

“OK, let’s go to the restaurant.”

In addition to being used in almost every part of speech, there really isn’t a consensus on how to spell OK. 

It is spelled OK, with two capital letters, and ok, with two lower case letters, or OK, capitalized with periods after each letter, ok with two lower case letters with periods after each one, and finally, it can be spelled out o-k-a-y.

On top of that, there have been many slang uses of the word over time. This includes oke, okie, and okie dokie.  Modern internet abbreviations will often just use the letter k, as an abbreviation for OK. 

OK can mean different things. It can imply mediocrity if something is just OK. It can imply affirmation, agreement, or aquesicence. 

Despite this interesting grammar and spelling lesson, the real reason why I’m bothering to do an episode on the word OK has to do with its origins. Or rather, its many origin stories, none of which can be truly verified. 

Here is what we do know. Despite being one of the most common words in the English language and one of the most universal words in the world, OK is actually a relatively new word. As far as we can tell, its origins date back to the 19th century United States or earlier.

The first use in print of OK dates back to 1839 and the Boston Morning Post newspaper.

It was used in an article that was a satirical piece on the fad for purposeful misspellings of words alongside another fad for abbreviating phrases. 

People might abbreviate phrases such as KG for “know go”/

When added to purposeful misspellings, you got something like OW for “all wright,” with all being spelled oll.

As was documented in the original article, the abbreviation OK stood for “oll korrect.” All with an “o” and correct with a “k.”

However, just because this might have been a in 1839 Boston doesn’t mean that it wasn’t used beforehand. In fact, if it was used beforehand, that might be the reason why someone bothered to make a joke out of it.

There are several researchers who claim to have found uses in documents before 1839. 

The diary of William Richardson in 1815 noted, “we arrived ok” when he made a trip from Boston to New Orleans. 

Likewise, there was a diary entry from a plantation owner in Jamaica that indicated everything was ‘ok”. 

There are many theories as to where the term might have come from. 

One of the common explanations is that it came from the Choctaw Indian language.  The theory goes that sometime in the early 19th century, white traders with the Choctaw learned some of their language, or possibly, some of the Choctaw language rubbed off on American soldiers when they fought with them during the War of 1812.

In Choctaw, the term “okeh” means “it is.” 

President Woodrow Wilson would write the Choctaw “okeh” on documents if he approved them.

Another theory is that the term may have had a West African origin, with slaves having brought it to America.

In particular, it may have come from the Wolof language, which is spoken in modern-day Senegal and Gambia. Their term “waw kay” means an emphatic yes.

Another possible West African origin could be Mandinka, which has the phrase “o ke”, which means “that’s it” or  “certainly.”  There is another West African language, Djabo, today spoken in Liberia, where “o ke” is a similar way of saying yes.

There is yet another theory that the origins might have come from Germany. OK were initials which stood for Ohne Korrectur, which is German for “without correction.”  The initials would have been used in publishing to indicate that a publication did not need any edits. 

Another German theory holds that it came from goods marked OK shipped from the German industrialist Otto Kaiser. This was one of the primary theories which floated around Germany.

Yet another is that the initials meant Ober Kommando. Letters from Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben during the American Revolutionary War would have used the initials to indicate they came from his office.

Another theory has it coming from Greek. The term ??? ???? (Ola Kala) in Greek means “all good.” It was abbreviated to OK by Greek immigrants in the 19th century when they sent telegraphs home to save money by sending fewer characters. 

There are theories that OK may have had French origins as well. The French phrase “aux quais” means “at the docks,” which could have been used either in New Orleans or French ships during the revolution.

There is another theory that it could have come from Scottish. The term “och aye” means “oh, yes.” 

There is even a theory that it might have come from Latin from the term “Omnis Korrecta” which means “everything correct.” Teachers would put it on Latin papers if there were no mistakes. 

Some of these theories may have some kernel of truth, and some of them might have been invented as post facto origin for the word. It also might be the case that multiple origins all converged to get people to start saying OK.

What really took the term to national prominence was the election of 1840. The supporters of the incumbent president President Martin Van Buren, began to use OK as an abbreviation for his nickname, “Old Kinderhook.”

The term during the election had a double meaning. It implied that Old Kinderhook was Oll Korrect.  He lost the election, so clearly, the voters didn’t think so.

In 1864, OK was included in the Slang Dictionary of Vulgar Words. Precisely because it was slang, it never appeared that often in print, which is one of the big reasons why tracking down the origin of the word is so difficult.

It was also used by telegraph operators to indicate that a message had been received.

OK evolved over the 20th century. 

In 1943, Rogers and Hammerstein wrote the musical Oklahoma. In it, one of the lines of the title song is “You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma O.K.” 

Again, this has the double meaning of being the abbreviation of the state and also implying that things are good. 

During the very first Mercury space launch in 1961, the term A-OK was popularized by Lt. Col. John “Shorty” Powers. He was the head of public affairs for NASA and was also the voice of mission control. 

A-OK implied that something was better than just OK, and the term dates back to at least a decade beforehand. Author Tom Wolfe claims that A-OK was used because the A could be heard better through static than O could.

There is also a hand symbol which means OK. As I’m sure you know, it puts your thumb and index finger together to make a circle and then splays your other three fingers to sort of form a K. 

This hand symbol has been found throughout history. It has been found on ancient Greek vases where it indicates a symbol of love, as the index finger and thumb are supposed to be kissing. 

There are many images of the Buddha sitting with one hand in an OK symbol, which was used as a sign of perfection and peace. 

The hand signal began to be associated with the word OK in the 19th century, but it isn’t sure exactly when. 

There are many different types of sign language which use the OK symbol for many different things, depending on how it is used. Most of the meanings have nothing to do with the word OK.

In scuba diving, the OK sign is explicitly separate from the thumbs-up sign, as the thrumb-up is the sign that you are going to surface or that someone should surface.

It is odd that two letters should be so powerful and that its origins should be shrouded in mystery. Yet from its very humble and perhaps joke beginnings, the word has spread all over the world.  

The fact that there is one universal word that everyone can use, is to me….. OK.