Word Odyssey: O.K.?

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Today I’m going to feed my inner nerd—and yours too—by exploring the history of a word that most of us say every day, many times over. Okay?

Sometimes we spell it like a word, but just as often it’s just O.K. For those who cherish brevity, it’s even OK to dispense with the periods.

Over the years many apocryphal stories have popped up claiming to identify the origins of O.K. One popular claim is that it came from a Choctaw word okeh meaning “it is indeed.” Peter, Paul and Mary made this claim in their song “All Mixed Up.”

But they were mixed up. A couple of decades ago the American etymologist Allen Walker Read definitively pinned down the origins of O.K.

In the late 1830’s a hip fad began in Boston to abbreviate phrases by using the initials of the words, such as “NG” for “no go” and “GT” for “gone to Texas.” Even hipper was to abbreviate intentional misspellings of words—that’s where O.K. came in. It was an acronym for “oll korrect.” The fad spread to other cities, but O.K. spread even further during the 1840 presidential campaign of Martin Van Buren, who was seeking re-election. He was from Kinderhook, New York. His campaign publicists began calling him “Old Kinderhook”. Since those initials are O.K., Van Buren supporters started forming O.K. clubs around the country, which harmonically converged with the meaning of O.K. as “all correct.”

It didn’t help Van Buren all that much. He got clobbered by William Henry Harrison, in a landslide. But O.K. caught on. During the Civil War a businessman branded his soap as Pyle’s O.K. Soap. (“The most intelligent classes in New York use it”, according to an ad in the 1862 N.Y. Times). Pyle’s N.Y. Times obituary claimed that “[b]y his extensive employment of [these letters] he probably did more than any other person to raise them to the dignity of a popular term….”

O.K. thus ascended to common English slang. It has proved such a popular word that it has now spread to dozens of other languages, from Spanish and Portugese, to Arabic, to Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese.

Why has O.K. proved so popular? One theory is that the word is just so versatile, with a number of variations on its meaning, though all of them are anchored in the original “all correct.” A football player gets flattened, the crowd grows silent as he lays motionless, but when he gets up and runs off the field the announcer says “he’s okay” and the crowd cheers. The title I’m OK, You’re OK—a once popular self-help book and phrase—conveys that you’re not a complete nut job. But an okay can mean that you’re not necessarily doing great, either. If you ask someone how they’re doing and they say okay, it probably means they’re doing, well, just okay, but not truly peachy. And if the okay is accompanied by a small sigh, it probably means that they’re not really doing well at all, with okay being a polite way of avoiding saying hey, I’m a complete downer.

We use okay for affirmations. “Come on, let’s go to a movie.” Okay. Or, let’s go to a movie, okay? O.K. Sometimes we need to get our supervisor’s O.K. to do something. We also use it for pauses in speaking, like “um”. “Okay, now we’re going to discuss Kepler’s theory of the elliptical motions of the planets….okay, let’s start with Kepler’s equation, okay….”

A favorite use of the word is for sarcasm. Your spouse goes on and on and on about your bad habits, then you end the diatribe by saying “OKAY!”.

Another theory for the popularity of O.K. is that it’s noticeable in print and fun to pronounce. The two letters are stark contrasts. “O” not only looks nice and round, it sounds nice and round. When you say “O” your mouth actually gets round. Then comes the “K”, which looks like three well-arranged sticks and is pronounced harsh and swift. You might even say that the “K” is masculine in contrast to the smoother, more feminine “O”. Put the letters together, and you have a word that starts long but stops on a dime. O.K. And you can say it quickly.

Or, if you’re in the mood, you can stretch it out with an okey dokey. But why would you? That’s really not okay.