About OK


Tom discusses the origins and proliferation of the most commonly used word in any language.

Featuring Tom Merritt.



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Episode transcript:

I’m OK

You’re OK

But why do we say OK?

Confused? It’s OK. Let’s help you know a little more about the word OK.

If you want to start a new language that isn’t English or Mandarin and get most of the people in the world on board to start learning it, the first word you might want to add, is OK.
There are no reliable stats on it but OK is frequently referred to as “the most spoken word on the planet.” It probably isn’t. “Yi” in mandarin or “the” in English are probably spoken more often just because they are the most common words in the two most widely spoken languages on the planet.
However it is arguable that OK is the most widely spoken word on the planet, since it has been borrowed into dozens of languages. Babbel, which makes language learning programs, says OK has made appearances in Spanish, Dutch, Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, French, Russian, Indonesian, German, Maldivian, Malay, Urdu, Punjabi, Filipino and more. You hear it in non-english movies in TV shows. In fact if you don’t speak the language it will jump out at you. And I would bet you every taxi driver on earth says it.
So how did that come about?
Nobody knows.
The first use of OK in print happened in the March 23rd, 1839 edition of the Boston Morning Post.
If you think ads are too prevalent on the web these days, take a look at the March 23, 1839 Boston Morning Post. It’s 4 pages long and a good 3.5 pages are ads. On the front page the first column has ships and house for sale or let, the second column is called “Business Cards” and starts with two competing listings for sellers of silvery, the third and fourth columns are lists of auctions, the fifth column has poetry and a cure for headaches and the final column talks about all the toasts done in honor of St. Patrick’s Day the previous Monday and the column ends with an excerpt from the Bangor, Maine Democrat denying a report from the New York Herald claiming that a town near Bangor had burned President Martin Van Buren in effigy.
That’s the front page.
It’s not until you get to the second page that you see the news of the Democratic state convention, the local whig party nominations and a Wanted item for a small kitten for Caleb to play with doing chores for the governor. Which I highly suspect is some wry political satire but could also be an actual want ad for a kitten.
While most in the city were likely consumed with laughing about the kitten joke – or possibly finding a kitten for Caleb, a few may have looked right below it at a two-paragraph takedown of the Providence Journal’s coverage of the anti-bell-ringing society. .
Before I get to the actual written reference, we need to get our minds in a more 19th century frame of mind.
Back in those days, younger people liked to have fun shortening words into initialisms. OMG, I know. How primitive. LOL. But such was the way of the youth of the 1830s. For example. SP was used instead of small potatoes to mean something wasn’t very important. GT for “Gone to Texas” meaning someone had disappeared. AWALY for Are We All Laughing Yet. KG for Know Go which was a play on no go. That was a feature of the inititalisms of the day. Changing the spellings of the real words and then using the initials of the intentionally inaccurate spellings to obscure the underlying meaning. How else to mess with the olds? So two usages for something being in good shape were OW for Oll Wright and OK for Oll Korrect. Many of these were in spoken use for a decade before they began to show up in print, likely because we had to wait for these prankster college kids to graduate and became newspaper editors.
And newspaper editors definitely picked these up as a fun game to see if their public could figure them out. While you certainly wouldn’t use them in a serious story, like President Martin Van Buren in effigy, a story about say, the anti-bell ringing society was a perfect venue for it.
Which brings us to another tradition of the time, imaginary clubs founded on inside jokes. The New England Historical Society calls our attention to the “Association of Presidents of Bankrupt Insurance Companies and the Mammoth Cod Association as examples. They were non-existent, used to announce non-existent meetings in newspapers as a joke.
The Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, for example, was formed as joke when someone noticed that there was an ordnance on the books that said “No person, unless duly licensed by the mayor and aldermen, shall ring, or cause to be rung, any bell, or other instrument, in any street, to give notice of the exercise of any business or calling.” Outraged by this overreach of occupational licensing, the Anti-bell-ringing society filed a case in court to overturn the ordnance. Sadly, they never paid the filing fee, so it never made it on the docket. However, in the time-honored tradition of the troll, they loved it when people missed the joke and criticized them. So much so that they invented critics, in order to have an argument with them in the participating newspapers, and hopefully make people think there was something to the whole charade. You thought that was a new thing didn’t you?
Newspapers willingly took part in the fun, and the Boston Morning Post was one of them. There were 43 daily newspapers after all, you had to do something to grab attention. For example, in June 1838 the Post reported that “Eliot Brown, Esq., Secretary of the Boston Young Men’s Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Indians, F.A.H. (fell at Hoboken, N.J.) on Saturday last at 4 o’clock, p.m. in a duel 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).”
Yes. One of the many newspapers of Boston carried fake news of a duel. It was clearly for fun since it used initialisms.
In mid-March 1839, the Anti-bell-ringing society announced a train trip to New York City in order to advance their cause. The Boston Post reported on it. Everyone in on the joke knew there was no train trip, any more than there was a cause.
However, a newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island ran a story, noting that no one from the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society appeared to be on the train to New York at the given time.
Another thing you had to do in a world of 43 newspapers was report what other newspapers had done. We think that thing with bloggers quoting other bloggers was bad but it was WAY worse in 1839.
So it was, that on that fateful kitten-searching day of March 23, 1839, below the possibly sharp political satire aimed at the governor, and above a piece about a young man of respectable connections passing several thousand dollars worth of forged banknotes, was this:
“Quite an excitement was caused here yesterday by an announcement in the Boston Post that a deputation from the Boston ABRS would pass through the city on their way to N. York. Nothing but the short notice prevented the Marine Artillery from turning out to do honor to the occasion. The report proved unfounded however and has led to the opinion that Post is not the organ of that illustrious body.”
“The above is from the Providence Journal, the editor of which was a little too quick on the trigger on this occasion.”
I want to pause for just a second before we get to the history making part of these two paragraphs. So we have the Post excerpting the Journal (if the Journal even exists) and making… a lewd joke. Right? That bit about the Post and the organ? They’re saying what we think they’re saying right?
Anyway the section continues.
“We said not a word about our deputation passing “through the city” of Providence.—We said our brethren were going to New York… and they did go… 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 his “contribution box,” et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.”
That is dank with some 1830s slang, that is.
Translation: We never said the society was going through Providence we said we were going to New York and we did go. However the chairman (possibly the columnist writing this) is one of the group and if he goes through Providence on the way back, maybe the reporter from Providence will buy the drinks.
The key part is when the writer ponders if the Providence reporter would bring money; he writes “have his “contribution box,” et cetera, o.k.-all correct.”
Its’ a throwaway line. A hackneyed attempt to work another of the crazy trendy initialisms into the prose. And it made history. As the first written evidence of OK.
Subsequent uses became more and more common. Some early uses added “all correct” or “oll korrect” as a “gloss” or explanation. But soon the usage became common enough that you could just write OK and people would know what you meant. I mean as long as you were writing a puff piece. You still wouldn’t use it in a story about burning Martin Van Buren in effigy. Not yet.
You might be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that this confirms the idea that college students at a Boston school, like Harvard, invented OK. It certainly bears out that they popularized it. But it’s quite possible the phrase was in circulation before that. In fact familiarity with it in other contexts might explain why it stuck around and got more popular while KG and RTBS withered away.
A particle in the Choctaw language called “okeh” is used at the end of sentences as an affirmative. The earliest written evidence is from Cyrus Byington and Alfred Wright’s translation of the Christian bible into Choctaw in 1825. They ended many sentences with okeh, translated as “it is so.” Byington also included okeh in a Grammar of the Choctaw Language and a Dictionary of the Choctaw Language.
There is also the fact that in the west African Wolof and Bantu languages there is a word waw-kay and in Mande the phrase o ke, which have a meaning similar to “yes, indeed.” A 1784 publication of a “Tour in the United States of America” by J.F.D. Smyth quotes a North Carolina man held in slavery as saying “Kay” at the start of a sentence in the way you would use “OK” at the start of a sentence.
And some folks have pointed to the similarity of the Scots phrase “och aye” for oh yes and the greek phrase “ola kala” meaning all good.
It’s impossible to pin down a beginning. But all of those variations being in the mix combined with a mischievous usage among trend-setting folks in the 1830s, certainly propelled OK into the mainstream. And while there are many examples that accelerated and internationalized its usage I’ll give two I think are key to its spread.
The first propelled it in the United States.
Let me ask you a question. Who was the first US presidential candidate to use LOL? No idea right? Because none of them made it the center of their campaign. None of them were as tied into the youth of their day as President Martin Van Buren.
You see, President Van Buren was having a tough time getting re-elected. Some of it was because of the massive unemployment, the fact that banks had run out of silver and gold and all paper money was backed by it so half of the banks went out of business. Not to mention the kitten problem.
But the really big problem was the Whigs. Yeah they had really rebounded. They’d recovered a bunch of members who had gone over to the Anti-Masonic party and actually held a national convention where they nominated Ohio’s William Henry Harrison for president and John Tyler as his running mate. Harrison had fought in a famous battle at a place called Tippecanoe, so they had a cracker of a slogan, Tippecanoe and Tyler too.
Now Van Buren had other problems. There’s that Panic of 1837, and that seven-year-long recession. He also didn’t have a running mate. Nope. No Vice President on the ticket. The sitting Vice President, Richard Mentor Johnson, not only had run previously under the slogan “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh” in the 1836 election but the entire delegation to the electoral college from Virginia hated him so much that they voted for Van Buren for president but not Johnson for Vice President. Meaning that the Senate had to weigh in and choose the Vice President. They chose Richard Mentor Johnson but he was so unpopular that the Democrats preferred to nominate nobody to be Van Buren’s running mate in 1840 rather than pick Johnson again.
OK OK. So he had problems. But the biggest problem was that Tippecanoe and Tyler Too slogan. If President Van Buren could only overcome that, he’d have a chance to make everyone forget that the economy was in ruins on his watch and he couldn’t even get anyone to be his Vice President.
Thank goodness then, that President Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York. And as such was sometimes referred to as Old Kinderhook. And with all those trendy Bostonians running around saying OK all the time, well it was genius right?
President Van Buren claimed that everybody was saying OK, because of him! Old Kinderhook! Vote for OK! Was his actual campaign slogan. It was a winner. For OK, which gained more exposure and more uptake in the language. President Van Buren lost to Harrison 234 electoral votes to 60. He didn’t even win his home state of New York.
OK, so the next example that I think accelerated the spread of OK internationally is the dialog box. That box that pops up on computers and asks you to click “OK.”
As legend has it, Larry Tessler was leading a team of testers to develop the Apple Lisa user interface. Originally they had two buttons on the dialog box “Do it” and “cancel.” Apparently one user kept clicking cancel when they should have clicked do it and when asked, complained that he was not a dolt. Do It looked a little on the screen like the word dolt. They had considered OK, but thought maybe it was too colloquial. But after this, they decided to change from Do It to OK.
The Lisa interface informed the Mac interface which informed the Windows interface which informed every dialog box after it such that for a time, every computer around the world had an OK button.
So is that it? Old Kinderhook and Apple? Is that why we all say OK? Probably not. As you can tell there are millions of small reasons combining to make this the international word.
Lots of folks point out that the sounds O and K are present in almost every language. Not all sounds are. So OK is uniquely acceptable as a borrowed word. And of course American culture spreading around the world also spread OK.
Some even argue that OK fills a need for a word that isn’t fully yes, but still affirmative. And yet some languages already have a word like this and still adopt OK.
Whatever the reason I hope you’re OK. And I hope you know a little more about OK.