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Where does ‘OK’ come from?

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Written by Stan Carey

Last month I looked at the variant spelling alright. Its synonym OK is a more complicated animal in some ways. It’s one of the most common words in English and has been borrowed into many other languages. Yet its origins are peculiar and have attracted a huge amount of speculation. OK, let’s dive in.

OK comes in many forms, OK and okay being the most popular. Alongside them there is O.K. and o.k., which are O.K. too, though in less formal contexts the full stops may seem fussy or old-fashioned. Lowercase ok is not suitable for formal prose but is perfectly okay in casual contexts. Mkay is common in speech, as is the abbreviation K or k – sometimes spelled out as kay or ’kay. And there are rarer forms like okey, okeh, and oke.



Historically there was much uncertainty and debate about where OK came from. Was it from Choctaw okeh, meaning ‘it is’ or ‘it is so’, or from a mishearing of Scots och aye? How about French au quai ‘to the dock’, or the Haiti port Aux Cayes? Finnish oikea means ‘correct’ – could that be it? Or Greek óla kalá ‘all good’? Was it short for Old Kinderhook, the nickname of US politician Martin Van Buren?

There have been so many suggestions and hypotheses that there’s a lengthy Wikipedia page devoted to all the possibilities. And while each origin story has had its supporters, they all lack persuasive evidence – except one, the case for which was laid out in a series of articles in the 1960s by the American etymologist Allen Walker Read. He showed that OK was based on a running joke among journalists in Boston in the 19th century, a kind of fad for abbreviating certain phrases and sometimes misspelling them, like NS for ‘nuff said’ and OW for ‘oll wright’ (‘all right’). In a similar vein, OK was short for ‘oll korrect’ (‘all correct’).

Most of these abbreviations were short-lived, but OK bucked the trend and took on a life of its own. Why it survived when others didn’t is a more complicated story, but it was helped by the Old Kinderhook connection – campaigners used it in political slogans for Van Buren, newspapers kept playing with it, and the public found it useful and adopted it. From there it spread around the US and beyond. The whole story is recounted in Allan Metcalf’s book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.

OK is everywhere now – in daily speech, novels, emails and academic texts, in polls and signs, in magazine and song titles. We say ‘OK Google’ to address our phone’s virtual assistant. We use it to convey acceptance, delight, scepticism, decisiveness, and countless other states of mind. And that’s A-OK.

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About the author

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Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

2 Comments

  • OK Sauce was usually on the table when I was growing up. Reading the label, with, as I remember, a couple of sources (ahem) for the expression may have been one of the first stimuli (stimuluses?) to my interest in language. Anyone share that? Maybe a social class thing, a SE England thing?

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