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Ben there, done that

OK, how did we get here?

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OK! Ever questioned why we use it without a second thought? As a native English speaker, certain words are spoken habitually; such is the case with the word OK. Where did it come from? Why do we use OK so much?

OK’s story begins in the late 1830s in Boston when the fad of using misspelled abbreviations broke out among the younger academic elites, similar to texting abbreviations of modern times (LOL). Some of these abbreviations included “KC” (knuff ced), “KY” (know yuse), and “OW” (oll wright). Through some lucky breaks “OK” (oll korrect) rose above the rest. 

In the early 19th century, the phrase “All correct” was used commonly to mean everything was in order or as an affirmative, somewhat similar to OK today. On March 23rd, 1839, OK made its print debut in the Boston Morning Post, bringing the word out into the mainstream. Due to the paper’s clout, other papers quickly picked up OK and spread it around the country. This led to OK becoming something many people knew about, not just a few Boston elites in the know. 

In 1840, Martin Van Buren, who was from Kinderhook, NY, adopted the abbreviated word into his reelection campaign. His supporters formed “OK Clubs.” Their message was that “Old Kinderhook” was “Oll Korrect.” This didn’t save Van Buren’s presidency, but the 1840 election was heavily publicized. This broad exposure greatly amplified the usage of the abbreviation across the country; however, another big break for OK was just around the corner. 

That break came in the form of the telegraph, invented in in 1844. OK was short and easy to tap out on a telegraph with two dots, a dash, a dot, followed by another dash and was easy to distinguish from other words. It was quickly adopted as the standard reply that a message had been received. In fact “The Manual of Telegraphy” by Prof. J.E. Smith published in 1865 even went so far to say that no message was to be regarded as transmitted until the receiving operator replied “ok.” 

There was one more reason OK stuck around, and that has to do with the letter k. In English, few words begin with the letter K; in fact, K is only more common than J, Q, Z and X. This rarity means that we generally remember words starting with K better than words beginning other letters. In the early 20th century, this sparked a “Kraze for K” where companies started replacing hard Cs with Ks to “katch” your eye. Think of brands like Kraft, Kool-aid, Kleenex or Krispy Kreme. OK is also very distinctive in appearance and sound.

After the turn of the 20th century, the Bostonian origins of OK began to be forgotten. People began to speculate about its history, often inadvertently perpetuating myths in the process. Some of these theories are still believed today. One common myth popularized by the folk singer Pete Seeger is that OK comes from the Choctaw word “Oke” meaning so it is. Others insist that the word is derived from a West African dialect brought to America by slaves. Unfortunately, none of the other theories have much in the way of historical backing.

At its most basic level, OK denotes acknowledgment, acceptance, agreement and/or indifference. This is also called a “neutral affirmative.” In his book “Ok, the Impossible Story of America’s Greatest Word,” Allan Metcalf explains that the word affirms without evaluating. When you say “OK,” you accept something without conveying your opinion or feelings on the matter. OK can also serve as an adjective meaning adequate, acceptable in contrast to bad or as mediocre in contrast to good. Its ubiquity has spread beyond the borders of the English language as well. OK has become one of the world’s most popular loanwords, or a word being adopted by a language from another without translation. It has become commonly used in about 20 other major languages. 

In English, either OK or okay are correct to use depending upon the writing style being followed. The longer spelling is more phonetically accurate and became popular after the turn of the 20th century. At this point, OK is practically a reflex for most of us. We don’t even realize how much we use it. In the research and writing of this column, I have become acutely aware of just how ubiquitous OK is. For example, try keeping track of how many times you use it in a given day, OK? OK was even arguably the first word spoken by someone on the moon, not bad for an inside joke from the 1830s.

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