What does OK mean?

The English language is full of abbreviations. While the words behind many of these abbreviated forms tend to seem rather obvious (like ft. for feet and VP for vice president), there are plenty of lesser-known examples even among the common shorthands we use in speech. and everyday writing.

Indeed, not everyone will have the answer if you ask what “am” and “pm” stand for, or why we use “lb”. to abbreviate a pound. And I recently realized that despite saying it and texting it multiple times a day, I have no idea what OK means.

We generally use OK or OK to express assent, agreement or acceptance. It can also be an adjective or an adverb to suggest that something is satisfying. Over time, it even became a verb and a noun to indicate approval or permission. OK now appears in countless languages ​​around the world and was even one of the first sounds made on the moon.

Despite the ubiquity of “OK,” my informal poll of friends and colleagues revealed that not a single one knew the words behind those two letters.

It’s not very surprising. Even etymologists were unsure of the meaning and origin of OK for many years. Some have suggested it derives from the Choctaw “okeh”, meaning “it is”, while others have pointed to West African origins through the Mande and Wolof languages. Other theories involved Orrin Kendall, maker of a popular military biscuit who supported many Union soldiers during the Civil War, or the Haitian port Aux Cayes, famous for its rum exports.

Although some debate persists, the most widely accepted explanation among language experts comes from the late etymologist and lexicographer Allen Walker Read. A professor at Columbia University, Read examined the history of “OK” in a series of articles published in American Speech in 1963 and 1964, and concluded that it comes from “oll korrect”, a typo intentional spelling of “all correct”.

“He discovered that Charles Gordon Green of the Boston Morning Post made it up as a spelling joke shared by newspapers, as an internet meme from an earlier era,” etymologist Barry Popik told HuffPost. “’OK’ means ‘everything is fine’. It should be ‘AC’, but that’s a joke.

Indeed, the earliest known published appearance of OK with this meaning comes from a March 23, 1839 Boston Morning Post article, which describes the activities of a satirical organization called the Anti-Bell Ringing Society.

The above comes from Journal of Providence, whose publisher is a little too quick on the trigger, on this occasion. We did not say a word of our deputation passing “through the city” of Providence. – We said our brothers were going to New York in the Richmond, and they went, according to the Thursday Post. The “Chairman of the Committee on Charitable Conference Bells” is among the deputation, and perhaps if he were to return to Boston, via Providence, that of the Journal, and his form-band, would have its “contribution box”, et cetera, All right – everything is correct – and fly the corks, like Sparksto the top.

Subsequent mentions of “OK ― everything is fine” appeared in the Boston Morning Post in the days and weeks that followed, and the term soon reached other newspapers like The Baltimore Sun and The Philadelphia Gazette.

This type of intentional misspelling is reminiscent of more recent linguistic fads, such as the use of “kewl” or “kool” instead of “cool”, and common abbreviations like LOL and NSFW.

“We consider intentional misspellings a modern phenomenon, but I love this period of American history ― the 1830s and 1840s ― because I feel like it was a time when Americans really started having fun with their language and doing things like inventing creative innovations,” said lexicographer and Wall Street Journal columnist Ben Zimmer. “OK grew out of a kind of abbreviation game that was popular with US and UK at the time, long before textual language. It’s funny because it combined two playful tendencies – comical misspellings and this fashion for abbreviating phrases, like NG for “not good”.

Other misspelled word abbreviations at this time included KY for “know yuse”, to mean “useless”, and KG for “know go”, as in “not-go”.

“Before OK it was OW, which came from a misspelled version of ‘okay’ – ‘oll wright,'” Zimmer added. “It first appears in the Boston Morning Post, then OK appears. The editor was having a lot of fun with it.

However, we can thank politics for propelling OK to new heights.

“People at one time assumed it came from Martin Van Buren’s nickname ‘Old Kinderhook’ in the presidential election of 1840,” Zimmer said. “There were buttons that said ‘OK,’ so people assumed the Van Buren campaign had made it up, but they were just piggybacking on this thing that came from Boston.”

Supporters of the outgoing Democratic president even formed “OK clubs”, some of which had the slogan “OK, it’s OK!” But opponents of Van Buren’s Whig Party used OK in a very different way – to disparage his predecessor and mentor Andrew Jackson.

A March 1840 issue of the New York Herald promulgated or started the rumor that Jackson was illiterate and believed “all correct” was spelled “ole kurrek”, so he wrote OK on official documents to indicate his approval. So the myth spread, catapulting OK into the national conversation. And as they say, the rest is history.

That OK has managed to maintain such a hold in our everyday language in the United States and far beyond the English-speaking world is impressive to say the least. The late linguist Allan Metcalf even wrote a book called “OK: The Unlikely Story of America’s Greatest Word” and proposed a holiday called “OK Day” on March 23 to celebrate his first known quote on March 23, 1839. .

“I agree with Allan Metcalf’s point in his book that it’s an incredibly unlikely story – that this two-word abbreviation from some funny little 1830s fad could take over the world,” said said Zimmer. “It just shows that language develops in unexpected ways. Things that people find interesting or fun and want to use can come from all sorts of different sources.

Zimmer thinks looking at examples from the past, like OK, can help us understand how people are innovating with language today through memes and online slang, which still include funny abbreviations. And while we think the language of the past is formal because we’re used to encountering it through literature and non-fiction texts, we can find more casual and fun writing in places like old comic books and humorous newspaper columns.

“You can see there’s this impulse that predates modern communication and technology a long time ago,” Zimmer said. “You could just use the newspapers of the day to spread these creative things. It’s fascinating to me. I like how we can kind of see the playfulness of language through an example like OK. People have the building blocks of language at their disposal and can always come up with something new. »


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