It is a word spoken millions of times a day around the world, but what are its origins? A book by Allen Metcalf, entitled OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, states that the word can be traced back to a Boston Morning Post newsroom. On March 23, 1839 these words appeared:
The “Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells,” is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have the “contribution box,” et ceteras, o.k. —all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.
However, if it meant “all correct”, why wasn’t the abbreviation “a.c” instead of “o.k”? Ah well, that would be due to a so-called “abbreviation fad” that occurred in the 1830’s. We might think our modern-day texting is a way-cool method of communicating “shorthand” messages, but in that day it was all the rage especially among newspaper editors. It was their version of our “LOLs” and “OMGs”.
In the 1940’s etymologist Allen Walker Read conducted some serious research and discovered that in many instances the abbreviations were sort of “tongue-in-cheek” and purposely misspelled. For instance, “oll korrect” would render “o.k.”. During that period of time, some newspapers used abbreviations so extensively that it made news almost unintelligible. According to the Kansas City Times (20 May 1963):
This elliptical telegraphy became so exaggerated that newspapers were barely understandable. “It shall be done” became “I.S.B.D.” “O.K.K.B.W.P.” meant “one kind kiss before we part.”
But things got even worse. The Boston papers of the day decided to use incorrect first letters to make their esoteric shorthand even less intelligible. “O.W.” was used for “oll wright.” “N.S.M.J.” was the symbol for “Nuff said ‘mong jentlemen.” The innocent “O.K.” came in to outlast them all, standing for “oll korrect.”
The fad started in the summer of 1838 and was seen in New York in summer 1839 and New Orleans in the fall of 1839. How did it spread? There were no wire services at that time and many newspapers, especially small-town ones, would get their news from other newspapers. I see it so much in researching various newspaper articles – word for word, the same article was printed across the country, right or wrong.
Nineteenth century newspapers were known for the inclusion of not just news but humor, poetry, satire, fiction series and even Sunday School lessons and sermons. As The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories points out, “[M]any American humorists from the 1820s on adopted as public personas uneducated bumpkins who communicated their observations in dialect made more dense by pointless misspelling. It is this tradition that turns no go into know go and no use into know yuse.”
So, not only was it fashionable to use abbreviations it was also acceptable to create them with misspelled terminology. “All Right” (A.R.) became “O.W.” or “oll wright” and “N.G.” for “no go” would have been rendered “K.G.” (“know go”). Humorously, “K.K.K.” wasn’t the early rendition for “Ku Klux Klan”, but rather was a fanciful abbreviation for “commit no nuisance”.
Metcalf has a humorous example in his book (p. 37) from the June 12, 1838 edition of the Boston Morning Post. The excerpt is extracted from Allen Read’s research (with Read’s abbreviation translations):
Melancholy — We understand that J. Eliot Brown, Esq., Secretary of the Boston Young Men’s Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Indians, F.H.H. (fell at Hoboken, N.J.) on Saturday last at 4 o’clock, P.M. in a duel with W.O.O.O.F.C. (with one of our first citizens). What measures will be taken by the Society in consequence of this heart rending event, R.T.B.S. (remains to be seen).
Metcalf continued, citing Boston editor Charles Green’s propensity to vary between small and capital letters: “S.P” (small potatoes); “N.G.” (no go); “G.C.” (gin cocktail); “M.J.” (mint julep) and “G.T.” (gone to Texas, presumably because Texas wasn’t yet a state, fleeing U.S. jurisdiction).
It was a craze, but how did the literary world respond? Apparently, it wasn’t widely accepted, at least at first. Mark Twain and Bret Harte did not use the new-fangled word; Louisa May Alcott used it once in Little Women, but in the next edition “OK” became “cozy” instead, perhaps signaling she was not comfortable with the term.
We all know fads eventually pass, so how did this one, especially the term “OK” manage to endure? Etymologists and historians attribute the phenomenon to the 1840 presidential election. That year Martin Van Buren was the Democratic candidate for re-election as president. The political machine of New York City called themselves the Tammany Society and to support Van Buren they established a Democratic O.K. Club. In this case, “O.K.” stood for “Old Kinderhook” since Martin Van Buren’s hometown was Kinderhook, New York.
That was a clever move on their part because they were able to use a word that was becoming increasingly more common, at least among everyday folks (and newspaper editors) – and perhaps they were hoping voters would assume that Van Buren was “oll korrect”.
Political machines of that day tended to be of the bullying sort, and these club members began to harass and disrupt Whig meetings, making headlines all over the country. Apparently, those tactics weren’t “o.k.” with voters as they sent Van Buren packing back to “Old Kinderhook”. Following the election, Whigs boasted that now “O.K.” meant “Off to Kinderhook.” William Henry Harrison’s “Tippicanoe and Tyler Too” strategy had worked.
Some historians have speculated that contributing to Van Buren’s defeat was a story that Whig journalists started passing around in 1828, saying Andrew Jackson had used the term “OK” to stand for “Ole Korrek”, implying Jackson was a bad speller I suppose. For years following the 1840 election, ordinary citizens came up with their own theories as to the origin of the phrase. In letters to editors they would expound on the origins they believed came from Latin, Greek, French, and more.
One language theory stemmed from the Choctaw word “okeh”. Apparently Woodrow Wilson bought that one, because he wrote “okeh” on documents he approved. When asked why he didn’t use “O.K.” he stated he believed it was wrong.
Metcalf pointed out in an NPR interview that he believes “OK” owes its endurance to its embodiment as a symbol of “America’s can-do philosophy in just two letters. If something’s OK, that’s OK, it’ll work, maybe it’s not perfect but it’ll work, and that’s an American attitude.” As he concluded, “it may be the most important American word.”
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!