The following is an article from the book Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader.
“Okay” is one of the most commonly used words in the world. But who came up with it?
Whether you spell it “okay,” “o.k.,” or “OK,” it is so universal in both its meaning and sound that linguists say it’s the most recognized word on the planet. (Second-most recognized: Coke.) It’s as close as anything we’ve got to a “universal language.”
But where the word actually came from is a bit of a mystery. Here are a few theories of how it started— and because they all developed in different parts of the world and spread, it’s possible that more than one or even all of them could be true.
• Okay is a derivative of the Old Scottish expression “och aye,” which means “oh, yes.”
• The Choctaw people (who once lived in modern-day Oklahoma) had a word oke, which means “it is so.”
• It comes from a Greek phrase, ola kala, which roughly translates to “everything’s good.”
• Les Cayes is a port city in Haiti, and the center of the 18th-century rum trade. Aux cayes (pronounced “oh-kay”) means “from Cayes” and was an expression used by French soldiers to describe the rum they were shipping (or drinking).
• A Chicago baker named Orrin Kendall provided hardtack biscuits to the Union Army during the Civil War and stamped his initials into every one.
• It came from an abbreviation used by telegraph operators, short for “open key,” meaning “ready to receive.”
THE OKAY CORRAL
But according to Columbia University linguistics professor Allen Walker Read, those stories are just amazing coincidences, all of which may have helped the word spread more quickly, but none are the word’s real origin. According to Read’s research in the 1960s, “OK” originated in Boston in the 1830s. Back then, comical abbreviations and silly misspellings were a big fad among writers in New England newspapers. Boston newspapers typically featured satirical abbreviations like OFM (“our first men”) to describe local hooligans, SP (“small potatoes”) for matters of little importance, and NS (“nuff said”). Besides being funny, the abbreviations took up far less precious newspaper space than complete words. (Modern equivalent: texting the phrase “OMG.”)
And then there was OW, which stood for “oll wright,” a 19th-century equivalent to “all right.” Oll wright didn’t make it to the modern day. And neither did OW, because it was used interchangeably with another abbreviation— OK, which meant the same thing but was short for “oll korrect.” The first known use of OK in print in this way dates to a March 1838 Boston Morning Post article by journalist Charles Gordon Greene (about a group called the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society).
VAN THE MAN
The rise of OK dovetailed with the presidency of Martin Van Buren. His nickname: Old Kinderhook, taken from the name of his birthplace in upstate New York. A group of supporters named itself after the initials of his nickname, calling themselves the OK Club.
The president’s political opponents in the Whig party used the club’s name against him during his failed reelection campaign. They came up with a variety of unflattering alternative meanings of OK to describe Van Buren and his lackluster 1837– 41 term, such as “Out of Kash” and “Out of Kredit.” Newspaper editors around the country followed suit, with variations like “Orfully Konfused” and “Often Kontradicts.”
By the time William Henry Harrison assumed the presidency from Van Buren in March 1841, OK was cemented in the public consciousness. As time went on, people forgot about the abbreviation/ misspelling fad and where OK came from, leading to the rise of numerous theories like the ones listed earlier in this article.
Even with all that, we may never know the exact origin of the word, but we do know that you can say “okay” to another person almost anywhere in the world and be assured that regardless of their native language they’ll know exactly what you mean.
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader. The 26th annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series is all-new and jam-packed with the BRI’s patented mix of fun and information.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!