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O.k. The Last Word
When did we start saying it? And why?
December 1984 | Volume 36, Issue 1
Democratic campaigners exhorted people to vote for Van, the O. K. man. But too few did. Despite Van Buren’s loss to William Henry Harrison, however, O.K. persisted as a slang expression for something good, and its use spread. In 1844 Samuel Morse sent the world’s first telegraph message over a forty-mile wire between Washington and Baltimore, and by 1850 his invention was in widespread use in the eastern United States. The telegraph encouraged abbreviations; it was a lot easier to tap out a two-letter O.K. (dot-dot dash-dot-dash) than to rattle off the eight letters of all right . By 1861 Morse systems were in use in Europe, and O.K. came to be used to signal that a message had been received correctly.
The earliest surviving reaction of a non-American to O.K. is from an Australian visitor. En route from Sydney to Southampton, in 1846, he stopped in Philadelphia and there heard Americans using the word. At first he was baffled, but on inquiry he was told it stood for “all correct.” He noted this in his diary of the journey, later published in London.
O.K. was in use in Jamaica by 1847, and presumably it penetrated other Caribbean islands about the same time. It undoubtedly was used in England in the 1850s, but its first known appearance there in print came in 1864 in a dictionary that identified it as an Americanism for “oll korrect.” By 1868 Englishmen were singing a popular ballad whose final line was: “The O.K. thing on Sunday is the walking in the Zoo. “ O.K. is recorded as having been used in India in 1883, in the Philippines in 1908, and in Greece well before 1913.
American soldiers in the SpanishAmerican War and in both World Wars used O.K. so frequently that natives in many countries took it up, and our military activities after 1945 resulted in okay heavily infiltrating the Japanese and Korean languages.
And so a 145-year-old political pun has become one of America’s most durable legacies to the world.