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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COMMENTS: 19


  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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  9. David Chowes, New York City says:

    When I was a kid, the term “okey dokey” was widely used.
    I thought it (as many colloquiasms) had died. WRONG! Having taught in college for many years, I was amazed that many undergraduates continue to use this pair of words.

    About 15 years ago a young female student (about 20) said that she would be late in handing in an assignment. I said, “OK.” She responded. “Okey dokey.”

    I have heard this usage numerous times since then.

    What is the origin of this phrase? Is it related to “OK”?

    Okey dokey!

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  10. Eric M. Jones says:

    This issue was fought to the death in the NYTimes Book review section in 1970 (or so). The best and perhaps final theory was that it was an African slave word. Slaves had a lot of reasons to say it, one supposes. It also seems to be a Swahili word.

    There is a tendency not to believe that whites ever got words from blacks etc., or the British from India.

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  11. Matthew Bate says:

    The internationally accepted hand signal for OK, as used by divers, helicopter pilots etc. looks like the letters O and K.

    Surely that has to be a contender?

    Form your thumb and fore-finger into a ring and splay your remaining fingers. Now look at it in a mirror. No, the other hand.

    Apparently it’s an insult in some cultures, referring to the fundamental orifice.

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  12. Emmi says:

    Great! I like hearing the origin of words. I’m reading a great book called “Eels”, and it mentions the origins of the word “taboo” (originally a Maori word).

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  13. DC says:

    OK is not a phrase.

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  14. DC says:

    And how is OK an abbreviation of All Correct? No matter how you abbreviate it, it doesn’t come out OK. Come on, guys, can’t we do a better job of explaining connections?

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  15. Cristian Rocca says:

    DC, Oll Korrect is German for All Correct. Much of the English language is derived from German so it makes some sense that we would use a German shorthand such as OK.

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  16. Andrew Wheeler says:

    See the link to the Straight Dope at comment #8 for the details — or, if anyone has time and access to a good academic library, go back to the source, “distinguished Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read in a series of articles in the journal American Speech in 1963 and 1964.”

    This is settled history, and has been for two generations. One hopes the (unnamed) book (by an unnamed author — is it “Freakonomics” policy that no other authors or books may be named here?) realizes this.

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  17. tmants says:

    There is Greek myth that says OK is coming through the greek phrase “Ολα Καλά” which means “Everything Checked and is Fine” and used to be what Greek ships used to write on boxes and containers. Thereafter becuase of the scale of Greek ship Industry this was exported and used across the world.

    No idea if it is true or not, just heard about it at some point.

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  18. Greg says:

    It occurs to me that the origin of OK is in fact from the Burmese word for Yes, phonetic spelling houq-keh which sounds just like OK when spoken.

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  19. Amadou M. Sall says:

    The most plausible hypothesis: the West African, or more precisely Wolof (Senegal) one. In fact “OK” comes from the Wolof “Waaw Kay”, pronounced very much like “OK”. (http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?EtymologyOfOkay/) Wolof happens to be my own mother tongue, and I can assure you Wolof speakers use “Waaw Kay” with exactly the same meaning as “OK” and in all situations where English-speakers would use “OK”…

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