By Dennis Baron
By rights, OK should not have become the world’s most popular word. It was first used as a joke in the Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839, a shortening of the phrase “oll korrect,” itself an incorrect spelling of “all correct.” The joke should have run its course, and OK should have been forgotten, just like we forgot the other initialisms appearing in newspapers at the time, such as O.F.M, ‘Our First Men,’ A.R., ‘all right,’ O.W., ‘oll wright,’ K.G., ‘know good,’ and K.Y., ‘know yuse.’ Instead, here we are celebrating OK’s 172nd birthday, wondering why the word became a lexical universal instead of a one day wonder.
Most of the “abracadabraisms” popular among journalists in 1839 are long gone, but OK stuck around. It didn’t go viral right away, perhaps because the first virus wouldn’t be discovered for another 60 years, but unlike A.R. and K.Y., OK managed to spread beyond comic articles in newspapers, to become a word on almost everybody’s lips. For that to happen, we had to forget what OK originally meant, a jokey informal word indicating approval, and then we had to repurpose it to mean almost anything, or in some cases, almost nothing at all.
Here’s that first OK, discovered almost 50 years ago by the linguist Alan Walker Read:
he of the Journal . . . would have the “contribution box,” et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward. [“He” is the editor of the rival Providence paper, and the subject of the article, the shenanigans of rowdy journalists and their friends, is so trivial that explaining it in no way explains OK’s success.]
The fact that the writer, the Post’s editor Charles Gordon Greene, defines OK as “all correct” confirms its novelty—readers wouldn’t be expected to know what it meant. But because readers were already used to jokey initialisms, Greene expected them to connect “oll korrect” and “all correct” on their own. He didn’t have to ask, “OK, Get it?” or add a final “Haha” to the message.
But why did OK have more staying power than yesterday’s newspaper? One thing that kept OK going after its March 23, 1839 sell-by date was its adoption by the 1940 re-election campaign of Pres. Martin Van Buren. Van Buren, born in Kinderhook, New York, was known as Old Kinderhook, and his political machine operated out of New York’s O.K. (Old Kinderhook) Democratic Club. The coincidence between “Old Kinderhook” and “oll korrect” proved a sloganeer’s dream, as this notice for a political rally illustrates:
The Democratic O.K. Club are hereby ordered to meet at the House of Jacob Colvin. [1840, Oxford English Dictionary, known more commonly by the initialism OED]
That campaign may have helped OK more than it helped Van Buren, who was definitely not OK: he was blamed for the financial crisis of 1837 and roundly trounced in the election by William Henry Harrison. Harrison himself wasn’t so OK: he died from pneumonia a month after giving a 2-hour inaugural address in the rain, but OK got national exposure, and it was soon tapped as one of many shorthand expressions (like gmlet for ‘give my love to’) serving the new telegraph, the “Victorian internet” that began spreading across the U.S. in the 1840s:
The communication with shore continued to improve, and was, in the language of telegraphers, O.K. [1865, OED]
Because OK is so common today, it’s easy to conclude that OK was successful right out of the box. That may not have been the case. If we track the rise of OK using the Google ngram, which searches those books printed between 1500 and 2008 that have been scanned into Google’s book project database, we find a relatively flat line for the word’s first 125 years, followed by a surge beginning in the mid-1960s.
Such data may be misleading for two reasons. Print occurrences of OK don’t necessarily reflect the prevalence of the term in spoken English. And it’s very likely that, telegraphers notwithstanding, OK spread more by word of mouth than in writing. But worse still, faulty OCR—that’s an initialism for Optical Character Recognition—means that the scanner often reads OK instead of of, or, and one, particularly in nineteenth-century books, whose typefaces were not as consistent as those today:
in the Federalist,* No. ok — **”ft””is of great importance in a republic [Google Books sample from De Tocqueville, Democracy in America]
Dissolution ok Fartxek- A partnership may be dissolved . . . by the aalf-mutual consent of the parties [Google sample from The law of nisi prius; clearly it’s not easy to dissolve a Fartxek].
Google’s ngram also counts the letters OK used as a set of geometric coordinates: “OK and OL, describe a circle, meeting the cord MA in D:” (Newton’s Principia Mathematica), or as a word from another language such as Icelandic or Scots. That means that Google is surely overcounting print occurrences of OK during those the early years. So, was OK a popular term in the nineteenth century? Yes, most likely. A universal term? Not quite yet.
Soon after its coining OK was “corrected” from the original two-letter abbreviation to a fully-written-out okay—perhaps because the association with “all correct” had faded from memory, and spurred on by the feeling that any popular abbreviation must come from a longer original (like Mr., which gets treated as the shortening of an original ‘mister,’ which never existed—Mr. is a shortening of master).
Some critics think acronyms are lazy shortcuts (one 19th-century writer called words like OK “laconics” and another, annoyed that they had to be puzzled out, called them “cabalistic signs”). This was before the invention of radar and scuba, two acronyms that have no problem being accepted as words in their own right, but long after two other initialisms entered English: IOU, which appeared around 1618, and A.M., for ante meridian, an English word since the 1700s.
Recent initialisms associated with the digital genres of chat and text messaging, for example OMG, WTF, LMAO, and BRB, are also ridiculed, and sometimes even condemned for contaminating the English language and presaging the decline of Western civilization. But initialisms have a long history in both formal and informal English. There’s the 16th-century English use of the Latin SPQR, for Senatus populusque Romanus, ‘the senate and people of Rome.’ Then there’s the now-respectable acronym, “the three R’s,” for “Reading, Writing, and Rithmetic,” may have first appeared in an 1825 send-up of the Lord Mayor of London. Even seemingly-contemporary initialisms like SWAK (‘sealed with a kiss’) and BTW (‘by the way’) pop up long before the digital revolution.
Nineteenth-century wits also found new comic interpretations of familiar acronyms. The OED records a joke version of SPQR, “small profits, quick returns.” And Read finds these reinterpretations of academic degrees in a 1931 New York Newspaper: A.B., ‘apt to blunder.’ A.M., ‘apt to mistake,’ LL.D., ‘licensed to lie damnably,’ and M.D., ‘maker of dead men,’ a joke tradition that continues in contemporary English, with B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. rendered as ‘bull shit,’ ‘more shit,’ and ‘piled higher and deeper.’
Acronyms abound in English, from technical words like scuba, ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus,’ and radar, ‘radio detection and ranging,’ to out and out slang, like snafu, ‘situation normal, all fucked up.’ But while Fiat is an Italian acronym for ‘Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino,’ Ford does not stand for ‘found on road dead.’ Nor does fuck signal ‘for unlawful carnal knowledge.’
OK may have become engrained in American speech and writing by the 1860s, but how then did it became a staple in languages around the world? Read notes that OK appears abroad as early as 1904, and he suggests that it was spread further by American GIs during World War II:
When the American soldiers arrived in Tuscany in 1944, the peasants called them Gli Ochei, just as the Picard peasants five centuries before had called the English soldiers Les Godam.
It may be that OK became the most successful American brand, more popular than hello and Coca Cola, not because of military might—people don’t learn words well at the point of a gun—or the global spread of American culture—movies and jazz in the first half of the 20th century, followed by rock ’n roll and TV in the second, because OK gets used even by people who don’t like America or Americans.
What gives OK its appeal in the end is the fact that it’s a little word with very little meaning that can be slipped in almost anywhere to fill a void.
OK is one of those highly-functional words that’s pretty much a semantic blank meaning anything or nothing. OK can signal that something is great, pretty good, just OK, or not very good at all. Sometime people say “OK” as a kind of throat clearing, to indicate they’re about to begin, or they may say “OK” to indicate they’re agreeing with another speaker, or they’re listening to that speaker, or to indicate that they’re simply there, breathing. You can say it to another person, or to yourself, or to no one. OK?
Other languages have words like this: German has also, shortened to so. French has bon, or alors. Some languages use not a word but just a little indrawn breath for this function, or a sound like sucking on a straw. OK is the English equivalent of these, a one-word-fits-all particle that probably found its way into other languages only after it had been sheared of most of its semantic content, and certainly after its connection with “oll korrect” had become at best only a dim memory.
Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared. Until next time, keep up with Professor Baron on Twitter: @DrGrammar.