The History of O.K.

It’s O.K.

That’s O.K. We’ve all said it a dozen times today. It has two sounds, and multiple spellings. “O.K” is one of the most recognized phrases in the world. But we do not know much about where this term came from. All words in English have a background. This one, it looks like, was lost in history. That doesn’t mean we have nothing, though. In fact, these two little letters have quite a lot of interesting information behind them.

Four Fast Facts about O.K.:

  • It became popular during the 1840 election of Martin Van Buren, the 8th president of the United States.

  • O.K. is among the most recognized words in the world, along with Coca-Cola

  • It has a distant cousin, OW: Oll Wright, that never made it big

  • O.K. may have started off as a joke…


How can O.K. work in a sentence?


If you’re not a native English speaker, it can be very difficult to know where a word goes in a sentence. Unfortunately, “O.K.” functions in several different roles.  O.K. could be:

An Adjective: Everything is O.K.

An Interjection: “OK! OK! I hear you!”

An informal agreement: “Want to go to lunch? OK”

A verb: “I need your boss to OK this” (To give consent)

A filler: “OK, guys? Time to get started”

You can see how this can get confusing. It’s hard to say, “This is right” when there are so many right answers!

Where might O.K. have come from?

There are several theories about where it could have come from. It might have started:

As a misspelling: Oll Korrect was one of the notes that Andrew Jackson liked to leave on reports. In the accent of the day, “all” had more of an “o” sound, and the President wasn’t a great speller. (It seems great spelling has never been a high priority for American politicians.)

As a Name: Before twitter, Facebook, and social media, each letter cost money. If you were writing, it made sense to save as much writing as possible. That means “O.K.” could have been Orrins-Kendell, a favorite brand of crackers. It could have been the name of Old Keokuk, an Native American chief. In fact, Old Kinderhook, or Martin Van Buren himself, used O.K. on the campaign trail.

As an Import from another language:  The sounds “O” and “K” exist in hundreds of languages. It isn’t hard to find O.K., or a word that sounds eerily similar. Finnish has “Oikea”, a word that means right or correct. It could be a Native American term from one of the several native languages.

It might have been a joke: The Boston Morning Post made a name for itself by slipping in abbreviations into long articles. This means that people would have to guess what they meant including “OW,” “OK,” and others. For whatever reason, O.K. stuck around.

Where it didn’t come from: Spartans


King Leonidas defended a nation. But the Spartans probably didn’t coin the phrase “O.K.” There is a nautical phrase in Greek, “Olla Kalla” that translates as “Its good.” It makes sense that this phrase could be abbreviated as “O.K..” However, this theory only makes sense when it is spelled in English. In Greek, “o” is omicron, and “k” is kappa. The term wouldn’t be “O.K.,” if it came from Greece, but rather “omicron kappa.”

TL: DR… O.K. in a moment

O.K. has a long, murky history. Two little sounds that convey a dozen different meanings. Without it, we would be missing a way to agree, or a way to say, “things are pretty good but not great.” It could have begun as a name, a misspelling, or a joke. However it started, we know it is not going anywhere. Whatever happens in the languages, we know it’s going to be… fine.


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