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Are You Okay?

Where Did “Okay” Really Come From?

Zach Mainzer

I’m no expert, but I would guess that each of us says “okay” at least twenty times a day. Its versatility makes it the perfect word for any sort of situation, from begrudging acceptance to describing the taco restaurant down the block. So it’s no wonder that okay/ok is so commonly used.

“Okay” has a host of definitions and connotations. As an adjective, it has two meanings that are almost opposites of each other. This dichotomy is captured perfectly by the recent AT&T slogan “just okay [meaning mediocre or bad] is not okay [meaning satisfactory or good].” It can also serve as an interjection that acknowledges one’s understanding of a request (as in “okay, I will do the complicated etymology research”) or as an ambiguous interjection (as in “okay, let’s go hiking,” where the okay seems to do nothing more than demand attention).

“Okay” may have actually started not as a written word, but as our shorthand, OK. In the early ‘30s (the 1830s of course), many publications in Boston found a strong passion for creating ridiculous abbreviations for the most obscure of phrases. Some examples include GT for “going to Texas” and OFM for “our first men.” In what became known as the Boston abbreviation fad, it seemed that newspapers were abbreviating everything. 

Some of these abbreviations played on some of the strange sayings or spellings of Irish immigrants, including a new abbreviation for “oll korrect.” And just like that, OK was born as an indication of affirmation or agreement. (Parenthetically, that is how alright came to share many similar meanings with okay.)

While the Boston abbreviation fad may have been the start of okay, the term really took off in 1840 after it obtained yet another meaning not related in the slightest to “oll korrect.” 1840 was an election year, pitting William Henry Harrison against incumbent President Martin Van Buren. Since the “Van Buren for President” slogan never really took off, his supporters began using another friendly nickname for him: Old Kinderhook. Since Van Buren had grown up in the town of Kinderhook, New York, his supporters found Old Kinderhook (or OK) to be an affectionate nickname for the President, sure to be popular among voters as he sought a second term. The Van Buren fan club even renamed itself the “OK Club” to express its support for the Old Kinderhook. 

Even though the Old Kinderhook lost the election, many etymologists agree that the campaign material for OK sparked its widespread use in English. Today, variants sounding remarkably similar to okay appear in many other languages around the world.

But how did Old Kinderhook/oll korrect come to take on the variety of meanings which it has today? The etymologists are a little fuzzy on this one, to the point that some have rejected this origin of okay and instead attributed it to similar words in other languages (or the craziest of all, that it stems from Port Aux Cayes in Haiti). But as more research has been done, an increasing number of experts have settled on the Boston abbreviation fad’s attribution of meaning and the 1840 election’s popularity boost that have made OK into the wonderful word we have today. 

It is truly remarkable how little clarity we have about the evolution of such a common word. It just goes to show how relative language is – whatever sounds to which we ascribe meaning carry that meaning, regardless of how they were used previously. So maybe people thought that Martin Van Buren, the Old Kinderhook, was fine, but not as great as his opponent William Harrison. Or maybe some other more complicated turn of events concocted this wildly popular term. Whatever the connection, this term’s history seems to have minimal connection to its modern-day use. But quite frankly, I think that’s okay.

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