by Hugh Rawson
It seems fitting to start a new blog on language with a look at the greatest contribution of American English to international discourse: the word O.K., also rendered as OK, o.k., ok, okay, and sometimes even as okeh. In whatever form, this expression of assent, approval, or correctness is understood nearly everywhere around the globe, from Afghanistan to Japan to Zimbabwe.
O.K. is remarkably versatile. It can be employed as a noun (“Will you give this memo your O.K.?”), as an adjective (“It’s an O.K. memo.”), as an adverb (“It reads O.K.”), as a verb (“So I will O.K. it for you.”), or as an interjection (“O.K.! Forget about the memo.”). Depending on context, O.K. can denote positive endorsement (“Congress O.K.’d the treaty.”) or mere acceptance of the status quo (“I’m O.K. with that.”). The expression also is remarkably mutable, having evolved into such forms as oke, okey-dokey, okle-dokle, and A-OK (the last popularized in 1961 when American astronaut Alan Shepard reported the safe splashdown of his Mercury capsule in the Atlantic: “Everything’s A-OK – dye marker out.”)
O.K. first appeared in print in American newspapers in the late 1830s, but for many years no one knew exactly what the abbreviation stood for or how it arose. A great many theories were proposed, mainly by amateur, or folk, etymologists. Some supposed that O.K. came from other languages, either from a Choctaw Indian term, hoke or okeh, meaning “it is so,” from the Mandingo oke, “certainly,” from the Scottish och aye, “oh, yes,” or, a longer but more provocative stretch, from the French aux quais, “at the quays,” referring to the places in colonial ports where French sailors arranged to meet shady ladies during the American Revolution. Others theorized that the expression came from the initials of an individual. Among the candidates: A Fox chief, Old Keokuk; a railroad freight agent, Obadiah Kelly, and a supplier of crackers to Union troops during the Civil War, Orrin Kendall.
The two most popular theories for a long time traced O.K. to either of two presidents: Andrew Jackson, who supposedly used it on legal documents as an abbreviation for “Oll Korrect” (or “Ole Kurreck” or “Orl Kerrect”), and Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, who was nicknamed “Old Kinderhook” because he came from Kinderhook, N.Y. Arguing for the first theory, Jackson was not a good speller, and perfectly capable of rendering his own name four ways on the same page. As for the second, Van Buren’s supporters in New York organized a Democratic O.K. Club and used “O.K.” as their rallying cry during his losing bid for re-election in 1840. (His opponents claimed that O.K. stood for “Out of Kash, Out of Kredit, Our of Karacter, and Out of Klothes.”)
Neither of the presidential theories was right, but both glanced up against the truth, as Columbia professor Allen Walker Read revealed in a magisterial series of five articles in American Speech, the journal of the American Dialectical Society, in 1963 and 1964. Read found that O.K. first appeared in print in Boston newspapers in 1839 as an abbreviation for “Oll (or “Orl”) Korrect,” then spread to other cities, including New York, where it was reinforced by the convergence with O.K. for “Old Kinderhook.” The original O.K. was part of fad for humorous misspellings and abbreviations. Similar coinages that appeared in newspapers of the time included O.W. for “Oll Wright” (“All Right”); K.G., “No Good”; K.Y., “No Use,” and the more elaborate O.K.K.B.W.P., “One Kind Kiss Before We Part.”
A couple of other remnants of this era of linguistic exhuberance are still encountered from time to time: N.G., “No Good,” and P.D.Q., “Pretty Damn Quick,” but O.K. has shown by far the most staying power. If one has to make a choice, based on its versatility, adaptability, and adoption around the world, O.K. has a good claim to being hailed as The Great American Word.