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An origin story that's just 'OK'

OK, have you ever stopped to think about how many times in a single day you say "OK"?

If you're like millions of others around the world, that number is probably more than you can count on your fingers and toes.

The ubiquity of "OK" is undeniable. It's used as a noun, a verb, an adverb, an interjection and a signal of agreement, not to mention the basis for one of the most famous self-help books of all time.

Believe it or not, we're coming up on the 178th anniversary of "OK," so we thought we'd take a look at the origin of this globally-recognized word.

There are a lot of theories about where "OK" comes from, including from French, Scottish and Choctaw. However, the best evidence we have suggests it first shows up as a joke in the Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839.

On the second page of the issue, editor Charles Gordon Greene uses "OK" as an abbreviation for "oll korrect."

This intentional misspelling of "all correct" was a popular slang term at the time. Greene liked his joke so much, he used it again a few days later.

Credit for finding the first probable use of "OK" goes to Allen Walker Read, who was a linguist at Columbia University.

Read gets even more credit for finding this citation long before the internet would've made such a search pretty easy. He actually had to read newspapers until he found it.

If Greene's weak joke had been the only instance of OK, it probably wouldn't have made it into the modern lexicon. However, the 1840 presidential campaign ensured its survival.

Martin Van Buren was up for re-election that year. Since Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York, his supporters thought "Old Kinderhook" was a great nickname. The name was shortened to "OK" on rally signs and a group campaigning for the incumbent became known as the OK Club. 

Van Buren lost the 1840 election to William Henry Harrison, but "OK" won its place in everyday speech. 

Are there any other words that are just so common and ordinary, you've never given them a second thought ... until now? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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