As more and more conversation happens over text, it’s getting more and more important to convey nuance. Fortunately, we humans (particularly the younger ones) have found ways to use capitalization, punctuation and typos to convey tone. Perhaps the best example of this is “OK.” Depending on how it’s used — “k.” or “ok!” or “OK!!!!!” or “okey dokey artichokey” — it can convey a lot of meaning. But OK is kind of weird to start with, because it’s not really a “word” — it’s two capital letters. And it doesn’t stand for anything (at least not anymore). And yet, it’s one of the most popular terms in the world. We explored the history of OK and how it became so ubiquitous, both in English and around the world.
The History Of OK — The Origin Story
There have been numerous attempts to explain the origin of “OK” as having something to do with a term taken from another language. Commentators on the English language from H.L. Mencken to William Safire have weighed in on the etymology of the term. Perhaps it could be related to the Scots och aye? Or maybe the Choctaw Indian okeh? But, alas, it’s not that logical of an explanation.
To understand the history of OK and where it came from, you have to know that during the mid-19th century, misspellings were hilarious in the United States. Like, top-shelf comedy. (To be fair, Lolcats wasn’t that long ago, so we can’t make fun of this too much.) At the time, these misspellings were often used to make fun of less literate people. One such example was “orl korrect” or “ole kurreck” (taken to mean “all correct”).
To that, you add in another phenomenon that was popular in the 1830s: shortening words to acronyms and initialisms. You might shorten “small potatoes” to “SP” for example. “Orl korrect” became “O.K.,” and thus the term was born. Specifically, it appears to have first been published in an article by The Boston Morning Post in 1839. It may have existed in speech before then, but 1839 is the furthest back anyone has been able to trace its usage. From there, it spread rapidly.
The Rise Of OK
From this origin story of the history of OK, it’s not a given that OK would enter common speech. It’s a pretty small reference. OK didn’t achieve prominence until a year after its initial introduction to the world, and it was all thanks to President Martin Van Buren.
In 1840, Democrat Martin Van Buren was up for re-election, and like all candidates at the time, he needed a catchy slogan. His supporters decided to take advantage of his nickname Old Kinderhook — based on the fact he was born in Kinderhook, New York — and so landed on the phrase “Vote for OK.” Supporters even formed the “OK Club” and started using the OK symbol, which is formed by making a ring with thumb and pointer finger and spreading out the rest of the fingers, so it literally looks like an “OK.”
Van Buren’s opponents then tied OK in the sense of “oll korrect” to former Democratic President Andrew Jackson, who had Van Buren as his vice president. The insinuation was that both Jackson and Van Buren were uneducated (which was a common insult against Andrew Jackson, whose nickname “Old Hickory” was the source of the word “hick”). The nationwide coverage boosted OK all around the country, and it continued its spread even after Van Buren’s electoral loss to William Henry Harrison.
The word OK might owe much of its popularity to its usefulness. It’s just two letters, which makes it more succinct than any other affirmation. It works as a noun (“Did you get the OK?”), a verb (“She OK’d the project”), an adjective (“I had an OK time”), an interjection (“OK!”), an adverb (“Did you do OK on the test?”) and is just a universally good way to say that something is alright, or “not bad.” It can fill almost any gap in conversation, so it’s not hard to see why it became such a popular term. In short, it’s useful.
The Global Dominance Of OK
The usefulness of a term in English does not automatically translate to usefulness in other languages. And yet, OK has burst out of the United States and is now used all over the world. OK has made appearances in Spanish, Dutch, Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, French, Russian, Indonesian, German, Maldivian, Malay, Urdu, Punjabi, Filipino and other languages. A few factors led to the global popularity of OK.
The first factor is the rapid spread of American culture and goods in general, especially during the 20th century. OK was just another export. On computers, for example, OK became a very common label for buttons to show affirmation. As English became a lingua franca, more and more people who spoke other languages came into contact with the term.
Another contributor to its status as a loanword is slightly more linguistic: it’s easy for most languages to pronounce. Not every language has every sound, so it’s unlikely for words that have rarer sounds to pass from language to language. Clicks, for example, are used in the !Xhosa language of South Africa, but not in English. The chance of English adopting a !Xhosa word that uses clicks is very low, as it’s simply too difficult for English speakers to pronounce. Pretty much every language has an “o,” “k,” and “ay,” however. Not every language pronounces it exactly the same, but its simplicity was a boon to being adopted so widely.
Something about the history of OK shows that the terms fills a need that was vacant in languages. That need might be the neutrality of the term. Other words, like “yes,” “all right,” “satisfactory,” “good” or any other synonyms of OK are weighted with stronger affirmation and emotion. OK, on the other hand, is the weakest form of affirmation, and is pretty much one step above “no.” This neutrality is also why it’s become so versatile, because people can project various meanings onto the term. So whether you love the hist OK or think it’s just OK, it’s undeniably a useful word.