How One Man Discovered the Obscure Origins of the Word ‘OK’

From Civil War biscuits to a Haitian port town, theories about the word’s beginnings abounded

Hands signaling OK
The origins of the word "OK" have long been a subject of scholarly debate. RapidEye via Getty Images

For many years, the origin of “OK,” one of the most common words in languages around the world, was disputed.

Theories about the word’s beginnings and original meaning abounded, according to the Economist. The Germans thought it came from an abbreviation of Oberst Kommandant, a high military rank. The French claimed it came from the pronunciation of Aux Cayes, a port town they had founded in Haiti. Some assumed that “OK” was shorthand for “open key,” a term once associated with the telegraph. Others thought Andrew Jackson picked up and popularized the Choctaw interjection “okeh” in his years as a general along the Mississippi River.

A solution to this linguistic puzzle only came about when Allen Walker Read, a literary scholar at Columbia University, did some digging in the mid-1960s. After systematically disproving earlier theories about the origins of OK—including one about a brand of Civil War biscuits—Read offered an origin story of his own.

The year was 1839, and New England was in the midst of “a remarkable vogue of using abbreviations,” as Read wrote in the journal American Speech. “It might well be called a craze.”

The Boston Morning Post was leading the abbreviation race, with editor Charles Gordon Greene at the helm. Many of the Morning Post’s inventions, like “SP” for “small potatoes” (similar to today’s “NBD”) or “KG” for “know go” (a purposeful misspelling of “no go”), failed to take off, writes’s Christopher Klein.

Read discovered that OK first appeared in print on March 23, 1839, when Greene used it as an abbreviation for “oll korrect,” or “all correct,” in a satirical article about the editorial practices of the Providence Journal, a rival newspaper.

Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren used the campaign slogan "Vote for OK" during the 1840 presidential election. Heritage Art / Heritage Images via Getty Images

Letters between the papers’ editors continued to use the abbreviation, but it did not come into widespread usage until the following year, when supporters of President Martin Van Buren, nicknamed “Old Kinderhook” after his hometown in New York, employed “Vote for OK” as a campaign slogan and set up OK Clubs to influence voters. (Voters, as it happened, did not deem Van Buren OK enough for reelection.)

Read’s etymological research, painstakingly conducted in the days before digital newspaper archives, showed “how, stage by stage, OK was spread throughout North America and the world to the moon,” where Buzz Aldrin spoke it far from the humble newsroom where it began, writes the Economist.

In the years that followed, some scholars contested Read’s conclusions. Writing in a 1975 issue of American Speech, Frank Greco of Rockefeller University suggested that the word might indeed have multiple origins—including the Scottish expression “och aye,” meaning “oh, yes”—that converged over time. Today, Read’s theory is still one of the most convincing explanations for OK’s transformation from an obscure editorial joke to a ubiquitous part of modern speech. In other words, oll roads lead back to OK.

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