O.k. The Last Word


FROM THE OIL FIELDS of Indonesia to the tulip fields of Holland to the rice fields of Brazil, a traveler overhears conversations sounding something like this:

FIRSTNATIVE : “Unintelligible unintelligible unintelligible, okay?”


The traveler has no idea just what it is these two people are talking about, except that the first one proposed something and the second agreed.

The average human inhabitant of the United States of America who is two years of age or older uses the word okay not fewer than seven times per day. This means that the sound okay is emitted into the American air more than 1.4 billion times every twentyfour hours. In the rest of the Western Hemisphere the sound is heard at least as often. Throughout the Eastern Hemisphere and the oceanic islands, the word is enunciated perhaps another billion times a day. There is no doubt that okay is the most commonly heard word on the planet.

Okay as an adjective of course means “good” or “agreed”; as a verb, “to approve.” In English it has to a large extent replaced the expression all right or alright , which is still used, though much less frequently than it was a hundred years ago. Although two capitalized initials, O. and K. ,were unquestionably the original form, increased use has led to its nowadays usually being spelled in English as a lowercase word, okay . The Official Scrabble Dictionary of English okays okay , but not OK or oké .

Okay has been said to have come from the Choctaw word oke or okeh ; to have been born in black African speech; to have come from the French au quai , meaning “at the wharf” ready for shipment. And it has been ascribed to Greek ( olla kalla ), German ( Oberst Kommandant ), and Scottish ( och aye ). But these are all wrong.

The deepest and most conclusive research into the derivation of okay has been done by Alien Walker Read, professor emeritus of English at Columbia University, who demonstrated that O.K. first appeared in print in the Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839. The editor, Charles Gordon Greene, said it stood for “all correct,” spelled oll korrect . This unlikely abbreviation came from the current craze for oddball spelling and initials: O.K. had a short-lived synonym, O.W. for “oil wright,” and political articles liked to use such kleverly kontrived initials as K.K.K.K. for “Kandidate Kant Kwite Kwalify.”

By late 1839 O.K. had made its first appearance in print in New York, and the next year an organization called the Democratic O.K. Club was formed in Manhattan to support the reelection of President Martin Van Buren.

The 5-foot-6-inch-tall Van Buren previously had been known as “Little Van,” and his campaign managers apparently wanted to popularize a nickname that would emphasize more than his lack of height. Nicknames, which were considered highly effective advertisements in those days, liked to incorporate the word old . The frigate Constitution was “Old Ironsides”; the U.S. flag was “Old Glory”; and Van Buren’s predecessor was “Old Hickory.” Van Buren’s publicity experts wanted to call him Old Something. The best they were able to come up with was the name of his upstate New York birthplace; the President was dubbed “Old Kinderhook, ” which at least capitalized on the recently created abbreviation O.K.

Used as a political rallying cry in the 1840 campaign, O.K. spread through the country much more fully and rapidly than it had in its original meaning of oll korrect , but it continued to signify “good” or “favorable.” By May the Democrats were wearing campaign badges with large O.K. s on them. On May 27 the New York newspaper New Era declared publicly, for the first time, that O.K. stood for the birthplace and nickname of President Van Buren and stated that “those who wear them [the badges] should bear in mind that it will require their most strenuous exertions between this [time] and autumn [the time of the election] to make all things O.K.” At about this time Van Buren began signing O.K. after his name on some interparty letters.