December 1984 | Volume 36, Issue 1
When did we start saying it? And why?
FIRSTNATIVE : “Unintelligible unintelligible unintelligible, okay?”
SECONDNATIVE : “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.
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.