The Origins of “OK”

The phrase “OK” is everywhere, but where did it get its start? A new book tackles its history, and NPR interviews the author, Allan Metcalf. The phrase originated with a few newspaper editors in 1839. “They had a lot of abbreviations that they were using and made up on the spot and thought they were terrifically funny,” says Metcalf. “And OK was an abbreviation for ‘All Correct.’” The phrase gathered momentum during the 1840 re-election campaign of Martin Van Buren. “He got the nickname Old Kinderhook, and early in 1840, OK clubs sprung up with the slogan, ‘OK is OK.’ So taking that funny little word and making it a mainstay of the political conversation in 1840, suddenly OK was way OK.” All right then. [%comments]

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  1. mohammad says:

    More detailed account from NYT two years ago…
    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/29/a-spitzer-tale-is-not-oll-korrect/

    But, yea, I have heard most often that it comes from the Dutch phrase “Oll Korrect”.

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  2. Ian Kemmish says:

    What would be the point of a political slogan which was only comprehensible to “a few” newspaper editors?

    One year – especially 160 years ago – does not sound like nearly enough time for a neologism to gain sufficient currency to be worth considering for such an important role.

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  3. Another David says:

    Why would I buy this book if you’d just told me the answer to the question?

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  4. rackoni says:

    I thought that’s the expression for ’0 Kills’

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  5. Diarmuid says:

    Isn’t it meant to be spelt okay?

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  6. banghouse says:

    I recall reading somewhere that OK got its start in the civil war on the lists of dead, wounded, missing etc. “OK” deriving from Zero Killed which was written in shorthand as 0k. Any truth to this?

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  7. RobW says:

    My favorite authority on such trivia is always Cecil Adams and his Straight Dope column.

    He covered this topic many years ago, and the details are online here: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/503/what-does-ok-stand-for

    In a nutshell:
    OK = Oll Korrect. But not from some Dutch phrase, but as a result of an 1830′s US fad for “comical abbreviations, many of which were exaggerated misspellings.”

    As someone who’s watched the arrival and popularity of the word “kewl” and then the abbreviation “KK” (‘oK, Kewl”) – this certainly rings true to me.

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  8. L. Max Taylor says:

    The origins of “OK,” I have recently learned, are the subject of considerable debate; the “Oll Korrect” or “Old Kinderhook” explanations are the part of the picture I learned as a child, but I recently learned the debate also includes

    * the Choctaw word “okeh,”

    * the Wolof word “waw kay” found in published accounts of African slaves’ speech in America: “Kay, massa, you just leave me, me sit here, great fish jump up into da canoe, here he be, massa, fine fish, massa; me den very grad; den me sit very still, until another great fish jump into de canoe;…” (this passage, in Wikipedia’s entry on Okay, is attributed to J. F. D. Smyth. (1784) A Tour in the United States of America (London, 1784), 1:118-21); also according to the wikipedia entry, “[a] Jamaican planter’s diary of 1816 records a “Negro” as saying: “Oh ki, massa, doctor no need be fright, we no want to hurt him.” (attributed by wikipedia entry to David Dalby (Reader in West African Languages, SOAS, U of London). (1971) “The Etymology of O.K.,” The Times, 14 January 1971).

    * the French maritime phrase “Au quay” (pronounced “OK”)

    Who’s to say that any of these possible origins did not in fact contribute to the invention or adoption of this phrase in American English?

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