It’s All OK

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.

34 thoughts on “It’s All OK

  1. Love your blog.

    Here are links to 4 pieces of mine broadcast on Live from WFMT on Jan. 24, streamed live. Phil my computer smart hubby has made links for friends to listen to at their leisure.

    Pat

    I am now on facebook. Catching up with the grandkids.

  2. william J. vanden Heuvel

    I am a van Buren man myself when it comes to O.K.–so many of his documents, signed at his country home in Old Kinderhook on the Hudson, carry the initials O.K under his signature.
    The important thing is this wonderful new blog –so well done, so interesting, so challenging. Thank you

    1. So glad you liked my opening salvo. Your comment encourages me to keep going!…Most people in the word business, including the editors of the OED, have found Allen Walker Read’s articles about O.K. in American Speech to be convicing. And if anyone has found an example of OK in print that pre-dates those in the Boston newspapers of 1839, I haven’t heard about it. Can you point me toward a particular Van Burean document, dated prior to the 1840 election, with his O.K. on it? I’d be glad to have a chance to follow that trail further. If you have a copy in your library, I’d like to swing by and take a look at it. I am in Roxbury and must be all of 15 minutes away from you. Best wishes, Hugh

  3. Harry

    Despite the elaborate argument, I remain convinced that “OK” is “origin unknown.” The American language has scores of fathers; it’s hardly surprising that some of them cannot confirm paternity.

    1. As noted in my reply above, Allen Walker Read’s sleuthing has convinced most lexicographers that O.K. arose in Boston in 1839. The “origin unknown” remains true in the sense that there is no reason to suppose that the expression was coined by first person to use it in print.

  4. Helen F. Gray

    There is a lovely opening scene in Gosford Park when Maggie Smith arrives for the weekend. Her driver pulls over before reaching the house for some reason I’ve forgotten but following is a car driven by an American movie mogul who offers assistance.
    “Are you okay?” he asks.
    Leaning out of her car window, Maggie, as only she can do it, answers,
    “Am I WHAT?”

    1. Jem Bateman

      When did it enter British English? Like you, Helen, I hear/see it before it should be there – someone in Leslie Thomas’ ‘Other Times’, set in England 1939-40, says it and I somehow feel it would’ve been unknown then. (I’m thinking that by 1945, US films and servicemen in the UK would’ve overspilled into colloquial British English)

      1. Jem Bateman

        Aha, OED notes it in BrE in 1860. I’ll ask my parents and in-laws (born 1927-330how widespread it was during their childhoods.

  5. Chris

    I heard on a TV history programme a few weeks ago that OK originated from ‘0 Killed’ written on a chalk board after a bloody battle. Is this true?

    1. Hugh Rawson

      A dozen or more explanations of the origin of “O.K.” have been offered by different people over the years, but the history programme’s suggestion is a new one to me — and it makes me wonder about the quality of the programme’s history. The etymology given in my article is the one suscribed to by professional lexicographers today.

      1. Zoltán

        I had read I do not know where something like what Chris wrote above. The board was hung above the entrance of a tent in which slept soldiers all uninjured in a battle during the Civil War. As I read,the meaning was “zero casualties”, “c” being misspelled as “k”, of course.I found this version interesting,worth to check, even if it turns out to be untrue.

  6. Luanne

    You can’t talk about this without looking at Allan Metcalf’s book from Oxford Univ Press. OK, The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, which came out last year to great reviews, expands on Read’s work. Check out NYT’s review by Roy Blount JR. from November 19, 2010.

    1. I’ve not read Metcalf’s book on OK but am familiar with other things he has written. He is solid. But I don’t think that he, or anyone else, has found examples of O.K. that pre-date Allen Walker Read’s 1839 discoveries. And however the term might have been used in the Civil War, as reported by the correspondent above, Read’s explanation of how O.K. arose would still hold, since the Boston examples date to more than twenty years before the war began.

  7. Rosemary Shields

    What fascinates me about the truly American word, okay, is the British don’t use it. They say, “Right” and the relatively recent, “Brilliant.” It appears, however, that all other English speakers do use the word, okay. For the past 30 years or so, I’ve been keeping my ear tuned to hear someone from England use the term. So far I’ve been disappointed. And that makes the Gosford Park reference especially fun to me.

    1. It may well be that O.K. sticks out more in other languages than in English English, but a check of the OED on-line turns up citations from D.H. Lawrence, Dorothy Sayers, Stephen Potter, and few other British sources. This does make me wonder if the weighting of citations in the OED is not slightly skewed, with the editors bending over backwards to include British examples. Whatever, it is good to know that you are keeping an eye on me! Your notes and comments will always be most welcome.

      1. Rosemary Shields

        Hugh, Not to beat a dead horse: your citations appear to be literary okays. I’m talking about oral okays. I don’t hear okay in British speech. So, I’m keeping an eye on you and ear on the British.

  8. Andreea

    I have the feeling that its origin is still not clear yet.As far as I’m concerned i know that OK stands for “zero kills”. It was used during war and if OK was written near a certain family name then no victims belonged to that family.Maybe that is why it has a postiive meaning.It was certainly good news to find out that no one dear to you is gone.

    1. Hugh Rawson

      O.K. had a positive meaning from the beginning (1839, as far as we know). “Zero kills,” if ever abbreviated as “O.K.” in the Civil War or later conflicts, would just play off the earlier use. I do tend to be very suspicious of explanations of words as acronyms. Almost all of these fall into the realm of folk etymology, e.g., S.O.S. supposedly from Save Our Ship, “cop” from “Constable on Patrol,” and “posh” from “Port Out Starboard Home,” among many others.

  9. Ah — I didn’t appreciate that you were referring in your first comment only to spoken British speech. I trust your ear — and am now wondering why the British should use the informal okay more often in writing than in speaking, when writing usually is the more formal medium. Any ideas?

    1. Rosemary Shields

      I’d have to read your citations mentioned above. Am wondering if they were trying to sound jazzy or cool in what they were writing or mimicking an American in a story.

      1. Chris

        It seems that OK has been used in war, so I’m glad the children’s BBC programme wasn’t misinforming us! I think it was a logical shorthand and it’s current usage today would be an appropriate progression, as in ‘everything’s ok’.

        As a Brit, I think I must tell you – we use ok all the time, it’s extremely common in texts, eg. ‘R u OK?’ and general informal speech. It’s usually used to mean ‘Alright’, as in ‘are you ok?’, or ‘so-so’, as in ‘do you like the new carpet?’, ‘it’s ok, but..’. I think there is a possibility that those who prefer to only speak formally would consider it slang and so wouldn’t use it. Word snobbery is alive and well in the UK. For example, there are people here who would take exception to the use of the word ‘kid’ to mean ‘child’. They would say ‘a kid is a baby goat’. That’s like saying you can’t have two different uses for one word, whereas I’m sure everybody here knows, you can have several uses and meanings for one word.

      2. Hugh Rawson

        I don’t have the cites in front of me but don’t think the writers were trying to be particularly cool or pretend to be American. I recall that the D.H. Lawrence example was from a p[rivate letter.

  10. Rosemary Shields

    Dear Chris: Glad to have my impression, that the British don’t use the word okay in their speech, shattered. Obviously, my contact with the British here in America is limited but on all my numerous visits to England I never once heard the word used. Must be hanging out with the wrong sort — ha! Thanks for setting the record straight. To your other point: it’s so funny you should use the “kid” reference — my father, the father of six — didn’t use it either. I attributed that insistence to lingusitic precision to his German mother.

    1. To add some statistical weight to this argument, we have a large database of transcribed conversations (about 96 million words), which we can search to analyse how words are currently being used in the English language (and how it is changing). Searching for ‘OK’ and ‘okay’ in this gives the following figures:

      British English: 7,694 occurrences
      American English: 26,981 occurrences

      However, there are roughly 68.5 million words of American English, and 28.2m words of British English, so we would expect to find more occurrences in American – if we express these figures per million words, we get:

      British English: 273 occurrences per million
      American English: 394 occurrences per million

      So we can conclude that ‘OK’ (or ‘okay’) is more common in American speech, but not overwhelmingly so, and it certainly exists in British English. Finally, it’s interesting to note that the majority of occurrences of ‘OK’ in American occur on its own as a single sentence: “OK.”; whereas in British English it tends to occur more both as an adjective (“Is that OK?”), and as an addition to the end of a sentence (“I’ll see you at 8 tonight then, OK?”). Why this is might be the subject of another blog post…

      1. Rosemary Shields

        Shattered, I’m flabbergasted. Another ignorant stereotype bites the dust. Thanks to everyone for bursting my British mythological thinking.

  11. Harry

    It’s interesting to note that the present vogue for abbreviation in text messages (OMG, LOL, BFF, etc.) seems to parallel the press’s fascination of 180 years ago with similar popular locutions. There is nothing new under the sun!

    1. Hugh Rawson

      A closer parallel to OMG and other new abbreviations in text messages, I believe, are the abbreviations that came into use in the early days of telegraphy. In each case, the new means of speedy communication evoked new abbreviations. A living example from the age of telegraphy is potus, meaning President of the United States.

  12. Nadia

    As a Brit, I always thought Okay had British origins, as it very much part of everyday speech (Despite someone’s opinion those more ‘well spoken’ folk don’t say it, I have many a ‘well spoken’ acquaintance who often use the word), I can’t imagine not using the word okay, In fact I will use many times during a day of speaking.

    However it is less likely to be used in written text I don’t believe American’s usage of the word is any higher that a Brits, we also use it in all possible contexts.

  13. Nadia

    Oh and I’d just like to add Scots expression och aye, the Greek ola kala are also evidence to the possible origins of OK, which predate any American explanations. Due to the wide spread usage of OK in British language, and the small number of Americans coming to the UK to spread their Americans, I’m not sure how we could have gotten this expression from American-English, and it makes more sense that it came from African, European or Scottish origins. Supporting this fact African/Europeans (etc.) were the ones to emigrate to the Americans and likely to have spread this term themselves.

  14. James Hallows

    I just wanted to thank everyone for contributing to this excellent discussion. As a Brit I can confirm what has been written about the British and their use of OK in everyday language.

    James

  15. Pingback: Can Boston Claim Canoodling? | Cognoscenti

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