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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. DC says:

    OK is not a phrase.

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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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