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The elusive origin of OK

OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word

Epicures of etymologies could scarcely ask for a more delicious dish than OK. Yes, OK—America’s greatest contribution to the English language, and the most successful export from English to other languages around the world. By its looks and sound, OK is an odd concoction, with little resemblance to anything else in the language. And by a quirk of history, its true origin was obscured less than a year after its creation early in the nineteenth century. So there has been ample opportunity for speculation about its origin, and the opportunity has not been wasted.

By its looks, OK (sometimes O.K. and originally o.k.—the spelling okay is a later innovation) appears to be an abbreviation. By its sound too: we don’t say ‘ock’ but the names of the two letters. And indeed, even from the beginning it was truly an abbreviation. The question is, an abbreviation of what?

Some speculated that it was names of people or products. Biscuits stamped OK, baked by Otto Kimmel of Boston or Orrin Kendall of Chicago or some other purveyor with those initials; apples from Old Kinderhook, New York; or rum from Aux Cayes, Haiti, arguably were held in such high regard that their particular OK came to signify high quality.

Many proposals came from partisans of other languages, eager to claim this world-wide phenomenon for their own. O and K are present in nearly every language of the world, as are expressions that can be abbreviated OK, so it was natural to imagine as the source of OK: Choctaw okeh ‘it is so,’ French o qu-oui ‘yes indeed,’ Scottish och aye ‘oh yes,’ German alles korrekt or perhaps ohne Korrektur ‘without correction needed,’ waw kay ‘yes indeed’ in the Wolof language of Africa, omnes korrecta ‘all correct’ in Latin, or Greek olla kalla ‘all good,’ supposedly used by the Spartans as long ago as 600 B.C. And there are many more such candidates.

All very fine. The only problem is, there is no shred of evidence leading from any of those to the actual earliest instance of OK. That was finally discovered and published in the 1960s by Allen Walker Read, preeminent scholar of historical American English. Thanks to his research, we know with rare precision exactly when and where OK first saw the light of day. It was on Saturday, March 23, 1839, on the second page of the Boston Morning Post, in an editorial making use of the joking abbreviations common in the papers of that town at that time. There, in passing, it was introduced as ‘o. k.—all correct.’

Nothing but a joke, an intentionally misspelled abbreviation of a commonplace phrase? Yes, the truth is stranger than even the most ingenious hypothesis. Without the incontrovertible evidence Read published, no etymologist could have imagined such an obscure and ignoble beginning for OK, let alone the red herring of misspelling.

How this feeble joke dodged prompt extinction and developed into America’s greatest word and most successful export requires not just a few paragraphs but a whole book to explain. You will find that explanation and the first full-length biography of OK in my OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, newly published by Oxford University Press.

 

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