Made in America: The Ridiculous History of 'OK'

By: Dave Roos  | 
OK word
The spread of "OK" shows how important an all-purpose word can be. Foxys Graphic/Shutterstock

"OK" is probably the most spoken word in the world — besides English, people say "OK" in a dozen languages, including Spanish, Italian and Russian — and yet almost nobody can tell you what those two letters stand for or where the word came from.

Was it borrowed from the indigenous Choctaw word "okeh," meaning, roughly, "OK"? Did it originate with a Boston baker named Otto Kimmel who liked to frost his initials into his cookies? Does it have anything to do with the state of Oklahoma (OK) or the musical "Oklahoma!"?


Nope, nope and nope. In fact, there's no evidence that "okeh" was part of the Chocktaw language.

"OK is the greatest American word," says Anatoly Liberman, a linguist, translator and language professor at the University of Minnesota. "The history of OK is a history of incredible success, but nobody could have predicted that success."

As you'll see, OK began as a piece of insider slang from the late 1830s and rode a (losing) presidential campaign to nationwide fame and eventually worldwide ubiquity.


The Acronym Craze of the 1830s

victorian lady and gentleman
Perhaps this Victorian lady is asking her beau for "O.K.K.B.W.P."
duncan1890/Getty Images

In the early 19th century, new printing technologies dramatically reduced the cost of publishing a daily newspaper, and there was a resulting explosion of inexpensive new dailies known collectively as the penny press. Competing for readers, penny papers in cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston published not only straight news stories, but also witty takes on the latest political scandals, social scenes and popular trends.

Think of it as the internet of the 1830s. And much like the internet, the lively back-and-forth chatter between penny paper editors gave birth to a new way of writing and eventually a new way of speaking.


"Beginning in the summer of 1838, there developed in Boston a remarkable vogue of using abbreviations. It might well be called a craze," wrote the famed etymologist Allen Walker Read, who was the first person to trace the full history of OK.

Take these examples from Boston's Morning Post, whose editor, Charles Gordon Greene, sprinkled his columns with winking acronyms for everything and anything:

  • O.F.M. ("our first men")
  • W.O.O.O.F.C. ("with one of our first citizens")
  • R.T.B.S. ("remains to be seen")
  • D.L.E.C. ("do let 'em come")
  • G.T.D.H.D. ("give the devil his due")
  • W.Y.G. ("will you go?")

By 1939, the "initial language," as it was sometimes called, had arrived in New York City and had already leapt from print to fashionable slang. "This is a species of spoken shorthand, which is getting into very general use among loafers and gentlemen of the fancy," wrote the editors of New York's Evening Tattler.

The editors even claimed to have overheard a conversation between two young sweethearts, where the girl turned to her beau and said, "O.K.K.B.W.P." "What could she have meant," wrote the Evening Tattler, "but 'One Kind Kiss Before We Part'?"


Misspelling Words Was Also a Thing

In addition to the abbreviation craze, 19th-century Americans thought it was really funny to purposely misspell stuff. Read, the etymologist, cited the example of the comic writer George W. Arnold, who used the pen name "Joe Strickland" to write mangled letters to his fictional family, like this one from a trip abroad: "when I got here tha axt me if I was evver in Turky before. no ses I. but i've had a darn menny turkeys in me."

By the late 1830s, the (hilarious) misspelling trend had combined with the acronym craze to produce punchy abbreviations like:


  • K.G. for "no go" (as if spelled "know go")
  • K.Y. for "no use" (as if spelled "know yuse")
  • O.W. for "all right" (as if spelled "oll wright")

Absolutely no one says K.G. or O.W. anymore, but believe it or not, that witty wordplay laid the groundwork for the arrival of a two-letter abbreviation that would conquer the world.


The Very First Use of OK

Before we get to the fateful date of March 21, 1839, let's tip our hats one more time to Allen Walker Read, the man who solved the mystery of OK's origins. Keep in mind that Read was working in the 1960s, decades before searchable digital newspaper archives.

"Read must have spent hundreds of hours digging through tons and tons of physical newspapers, journals, private letters and other documents," says Liberman, who writes the weekly Oxford Etymologist blog and knows firsthand how hard it is to track down the history of words. "What that man did was absolutely astounding."


OK, back to our story.

In the spring of 1839, the editor of Boston's Morning Post, Charles Gordon Greene, was engaged in some good-natured trash talk with the editors of the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. It had to do with a semi-satirical citizens group in Boston called the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society (or A.B.R.S.), of which Greene was a member.

The Providence paper poked fun at Greene and the A.B.R.S. and Greene had to set the record straight. So it was that on March 21, 1839, at the end of a short paragraph defending the A.B.R.S., Greene printed the following words: "o.k. — all correct."

See what he did there? Similar to using O.W. for "oll wright," Greene had coined a new misspelled acronym: O.K. for "oll korrect." Three days after Greene introduced OK to the world, the Providence Journal editors responded with an "O.K." of their own.

Like other offbeat acronyms of the day, O.K. was an inside joke randomly thrust into general circulation. But unlike O.W. or K.G., which enjoyed brief popularity in the 1830s, O.K. didn't die out.

"Nobody knew that this facetious abbreviation would have such a long and happy life," says Liberman.


"Old Kinderhook" Takes "OK" National

Martin Van Buren 1840 campaign
This political cartoon shows Martin Van Buren, who ran unsuccessfully against William Henry Harrison, known as the "log cabin and hard cider" candidate, during the 1840 presidential campaign. Van Buren's "OK" nickname is prominent. Bettman/Getty Images

If you thought that the word OK originated with Martin Van Buren, you'd be half right. The eighth president of the United States hailed from the small town of Kinderhook, New York. Like his mentor and fellow Democrat Andrew Jackson, who was known as "Old Hickory," Van Buren's nickname was "Old Kinderhook."

In the 1840 presidential election, William Henry Harrison and the Whig party challenged the incumbent Van Buren. Harrison's supporters came up with the catchy (for its time) campaign slogan (and song), "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." The Democrats swung back with a slogan of their own: "O.K." As in, "Old Kinderhook is OK!"


"[Van Buren] got the nickname Old Kinderhook, and early in 1840, OK clubs sprung up with the slogan, 'OK is OK.' So taking that funny little word and making it a mainstay of the political conversation in 1840, suddenly OK was way OK," said the late linguist Allan Metcalf in a 2010 NPR interview. Metcalf was the author of "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word." Van Buren lost badly, but OK definitely won.

After 1840, the word spread like wildfire and never looked back. Originally, OK appeared in telegraph messages (which may account for its international spread) and documents but not in everyday speech as it was "slangy." But that changed over time.

In an article for BBC Magazine, Metcalf speculated as to why OK was popular all over the world: "It's not that it was needed to 'fill a gap' in any language. Before 1839, English speakers had 'yes,' 'good,' 'fine,' 'excellent,' 'satisfactory' and 'all right.' What OK provided that the others did not was neutrality, a way to affirm or to express agreement without having to offer an opinion. ... OK allows us to view a situation in simplest terms, just OK or not."