June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
INTRODUCING A NEW COLUMN ON THE ORIGINS OF AMERICAN WORDS AND PHRASES
A good case can be made for O.K. as the great American word. It is understood nearly everywhere, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. It also is a wonderfully mutable term. Variants include okay, okey-dokey, okley-dokley (popularized on “The Simpsons”), and the astronautical A-O.K. (introduced to the world by Alan B. Shepard when his Mercury capsule splashed down in the Atlantic in 1961). Yet its origin was for many years a matter of wild speculation, with guesses reflecting different episodes in American history.
Among the once-popular explanations of O.K. ’s origins was that it came from the name of a person. Candidates for the honor included Obadiah Kelly, a railroad freight agent, whose initials were disseminated widely on bills of lading; Orrin Kendall, whose initials appeared on tins of crackers supplied to Union troops during the Civil War; and Old Keokek, a Fox chief said to have signified his assent to treaties with his initials. Other suggested sources included the Choctaw oke or okeh , meaning “it is so” (Woodrow Wilson believed this theory and registered his approval of memos by writing “Okeh”); the Scottish och, aye , meaning “oh, yes”; the Mandingo O ke , “certainly”; and—most provocatively—the French aux quais , “at the quays,” supposedly the usual reply by French sailors at the time of the American Revolution when asked by colonial dames where they wished to meet for assignations.
The leading story for many years, and one still repeated frequently, is that O.K. comes from “Old Kinderhook,” the nickname of President Martin Van Buren. This is not entirely misguided. Van Buren’s supporters in the election of 1840 popularized the expression by forming a Democratic O.K. Club in New York and making O.K. their rallying cry. It turns out, however, that they were picking up on the earlier use of O.K. as an abbreviation for “oil [or “orl”] korrect,” a facetious alteration of “all correct.” The Columbia professor Alien Walker Reed showed in articles in American Speech in 1963 and 1964 that this use of O.K. was part of a vogue for humorous misspellings and abbreviations in newspapers at the end of the 1830s. The earliest O.K. that he found in the “oil korrect” sense appeared in the Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839. Similar abbreviations of the period included G.T.D.H.D. (give the devil his due); N.S.M.J. (’nough said ’mong jintlemen); O.K.K.B.W.P. (one kind kiss before we part); and—two that are still occasionally encountered—N.G. (no good) and P.D.Q. (pretty damn quick).
P.S. Van Buren lost the election to William Henry Harrison, whereupon the winning Whigs claimed that O.K. actually stood for an Arabic phrase that, when read backward, meant “kicked out.”