18 February 2011

Linguistic Innovation: The Story of OK

The BBC has a great column up about a linguistic innovation -- the origins of the word "OK" -- by the author of a book telling this story.  Here is an excerpt from the column:
On 23 March 1839, OK was introduced to the world on the second page of the Boston Morning Post, in the midst of a long paragraph, as "o.k. (all correct)".

How this weak joke survived at all, instead of vanishing like its counterparts, is a matter of lucky coincidence involving the American presidential election of 1840.

One candidate was nicknamed Old Kinderhook, and there was a false tale that a previous American president couldn't spell properly and thus would approve documents with an "OK", thinking it was the abbreviation for "all correct".

Within a decade, people began actually marking OK on documents and using OK on the telegraph to signal that all was well. So OK had found its niche, being easy to say or write and also distinctive enough to be clear.

But there was still only restricted use of OK. The misspelled abbreviation may have implied illiteracy to some, and OK was generally avoided in anything but business contexts, or in fictional dialogue by characters deemed to be rustic or illiterate.

Indeed, by and large American writers of fiction avoided OK altogether, even those like Mark Twain who freely used slang.

But in the 20th Century OK moved from margin to mainstream, gradually becoming a staple of nearly everyone's conversation, no longer looked on as illiterate or slang.


  1. Not sure if this is your attempt to make your own mark in "linguistic evolution" or simply a typo, but wrt your:

    "the origins of the work "OK"

    To my mind (not to mention eye and ear), in this sentence "word" would ... uh ... work better than "work" ;-)

  2. A word of caution. There have been many claims of a definitive etymology for "OK". Many, like this one, are cute, but none deserve elevation above candidate status, except for the purposes of magazine articles. For once, the wikipedia entry covers the situation much better. Wikipedia discounts the hypotheses which claim that this is a loan word. I've not looked at the field for 15 years, but preferred the theory of a West African origin on the basis that this would allow for widespread use before appearance in writing, and that the commonly heard Jamaican pronunciation "okee" could reasonably taken to be cognate with the Twi phrase for "very good". I can't supply a ref -- the relevant book's in deep storage.

  3. As a ps, Arnold Zwicky (of significant standing in linguistics) describes the book on which this article is based as "engagingly written as well as thoroughly researched". So, presumably the arguments against exogenesis are well covered.

  4. My own theory is that it comes from the Languedoc, once dominant all over the South of France, where oc means yes. Makes more sense to me than any of these other notions.

  5. Jo_Calder (correctly) said that "There have been many claims of a definitive etymology for "OK".

    Here in Blighty (the UK), we see this acronym as coming into common usage following WWII from a popular song and dance routine called the 'Hokey Cokey'. The first part of the lyrics:

    You put your right hand in, your right hand out.
    In, out, in, out and shake it all about.
    You do the Hokey Cokey and you turn around.
    That's what it's all about.

    Well, you can read some of the rest of it here;


    At the risk of showing my senior years I can recollect actually dancing to this piece in my youth, and I can tell you that it was an 'ice breaker' that would've brought people together during times of trouble.

    I can't verify this, but it seems the Allied Armed Forces took so strongly to the 'piece' that anything that was considered to be 'good' was exclaimed as 'okey cokey', or 'okey dokey'. This was later reduced to the acronym 'OK'. As such, it has enjoyed the position of one of the most universally used and understood 'affirmative' acronyms around the globe.

    It would seem your caution alert came too late Jo. :)

    Best regards, Ray Dart.

  6. My high school was the old National Industrial School in Buenos Aires, named after his founder, Otto Krause (1856-1910), an Argentine engineer and professor of German origin famous for being the creator of the specialized "technical education" in Argentina.
    It was thus not surprising that in Buenos Aires (at the time I went to the named school, about 50 years ago), everybody was convinced that "OK" represented the signature of "Otto Krause", who apparently used to be a Chief Quality Controller at Ford in the T-Model years. It is said, that every car leaving the company had to be released by him, who signed "OK".
    We thought that this controller was "our" Otto Krause, a theory that can be dismissed though because he never visited the US. But why not one of his sons? He had 6 sons and 7 daughters. Each son carried the name "Otto", two of them as first name. Perhaps at least one emigrated to the US and got a job at Ford (using the networking of his father -:)?
    Seriously: Being a quite popular German name, it wouldn’t surprise me if indeed some "Otto Krause" at Ford originated “OK”. Moreover, the first "conveyor belt"- car production attracted huge attention, so that the repetitive signature "OK" must have been very popular at that time.
    Needless to say, that the above explains why the Ford-Otto Krause theory is my favorite.