This question seems like such an obvious candidate for your column that someone must have asked it before. But on the chance no one has, here goes: what does "OK" stand for, and where does the expression come from? I've heard a lot of different explanations over the years.
Yeah, and it’s about time I got things cleared up. Despite the fact that the origin of OK was conclusively established decades ago, few etymological dictionaries, even recent ones, give it accurately. On the contrary, some persist in giving equal time to explanations that have been discredited for decades.
For example, Eric Partridge, in Origins (1983), says OK derives from the OK Club, which supported Martin “Old Kinderhook” Van Buren in 1840. That isn’t wrong, but it’s only half the story.
William and Mary Morris, in the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1977), mention the OK Club and give several other theories as well, including the off-the-wall idea that OK comes from “Aux Cayes,” a port in Haiti noted for its rum. They imply the matter is still shrouded in mystery.
Baloney. The etymology of OK was masterfully explained by the distinguished Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read in a series of articles in the journal American Speech in 1963 and 1964.
The letters, not to keep you guessing, stand for “oll korrect.” They’re the result of a fad for comical abbreviations that flourished in the late 1830s and 1840s. Read buttressed his arguments with hundreds of citations from newspapers and other documents of the period. As far as I know his work has never been successfully challenged.
The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 and spread to New York and New Orleans in 1839. The Boston newspapers began referring satirically to the local swells as OFM, “our first men,” and used expressions like NG, “no go,” GT, “gone to Texas,” and SP, “small potatoes.”
Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of OK was OW, “oll wright,” and there was also KY, “know yuse,” KG, “know go,” and NS, “nuff said.”
Most of these acronyms enjoyed only a brief popularity. But OK was an exception, no doubt because it came in so handy. It first found its way into print in Boston in March of 1839 and soon became widespread among the hipper element.
It didn’t really enter the language at large, however, until 1840. That’s when Democratic supporters of Martin Van Buren adopted it as the name of their political club, giving OK a double meaning. (“Old Kinderhook” was a native of Kinderhook, New York.) OK became the war cry of Tammany hooligans in New York while beating up their opponents. It was mentioned in newspaper stories around the country.
Van Buren’s opponents tried to turn the phrase against him, saying that it had originated with Van Buren’s allegedly illiterate predecessor, Andrew Jackson, a story that has survived to this day. They also devoted considerable energy to coming up with unflattering interpretations, e.g., “Out of Kash, Out of Kredit, and Out of Klothes.” Newspaper editors and publicists around the country delighted in coming up with even sillier interpretations — Oll Killed, Orfully Konfused, Often Kontradicts, etc. — so that by the time the campaign was over the expression had taken firm root nationwide.
As time went on, though, people forgot about the abbreviation fad and Old Kinderhook and began manufacturing their own etymologies. A sampling:
- It’s a derivative of the Choctaw Indian affirmative “okeh.” Andrew Jackson, who figures in many stories about OK, is said to have introduced the word to the white man.
- Another Jackson story has it that he used to mark OK for “oll korrect” on court documents. In the one example of this that was actually unearthed, however, the OK was found actually to be OR, for “order recorded,” a common courthouse abbreviation.
- It was a telegraphic signal meaning “open key,” that is, ready to receive. Others say OK was used for “all right” because A and R had already been appropriated for other purposes. Big problem with this theory: the first telegraph message was transmitted in 1844, five years after OK appeared.
- It stands for O. Kendall & Sons, a supplier of army biscuits that stamped its initials on its product.
- It comes from Aux Cayes, already discussed. A variant is that it comes from the French au quai, “to the dock,” said of cotton that had been approved for loading on a ship.
- It stands for Obediah Kelly, a railroad freight agent, who used to mark his initials on documents to indicate all was in order.
- It comes from the Greek Olla Kalla, “all good.”
- A German general who fought on the side of the Americans in the Revolutionary War used to sign documents OK for Ober-Kommando.
There are dozens of other interpretations, all equally knuckleheaded. Pay them no mind. If Professor Read says OK = oll korrect, that’s good enough for me.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.