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Q From Anastasia Arabantinou: I would like you to inform me about the origin of the expression OK. I’ve heard that comes from the Greek expression ola kala which means everything is well.

A OK is without doubt the best-known and widest-travelled Americanism, used and recognised even by people who hardly know another word of English. Running in parallel with its popularity have been many attempts to explain where it came from — amateur etymologists have been obsessed with OK and theories have bred unchecked for the past 150 years.

Suggestions abound of introductions from another language, including the one you mention. Others include: from the Choctaw-Chickasaw okah meaning “it is indeed”; from a mishearing of the Scots och aye! (or perhaps Ulster Scots Ough aye!), “yes, indeed!”; from West African languages like Mandingo (O ke, “certainly”) or Wolof (waw kay, “yes indeed”); from Finnish oikea, “correct, exact”; from French au quais, “at the quay” (supposedly stencilled on Puerto Rican rum specially selected for export, or a place of assignation for French sailors in the Caribbean); or from French Aux Cayes (a port in Haiti famous for its superior rum). Such accidentally coincidental forms across languages are surprisingly common and all of these are certainly false. Many African-Americans would be delighted to have it proved that OK is actually from an African language brought to America by slaves, but the evidence is against them, as we shall shortly learn.

Some other theories I’ve seen mentioned: it comes from Old Keokuk, the name of a Native American Fox chief; from the German term Oberst Kommandant, Colonel in Command, or Ober Kommando, High Command, because German army officers fought on the colonists’ side in the American Revolution (the name of Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who served as Major general of the Continental Army, is often mentioned, as is that of General Schliessen, who can’t be linked to a real person); from the name of a freight agent, Obadiah Kelly, whose initials often appeared on bills of lading; an abbreviation for Open Key, popularised by early telegraphers; or from the initials of Orrin Kendall biscuits supplied to the Union Army during the Civil War. A particularly persistent and long-standing theory says that President Andrew Jackson used to write OK as an abbreviation of the illiterate “ole korrek” on documents, a grievous calumny on a well-educated man. None of these theories can be supported with documented proof.

I could go on, but it would only strain your patience and fortitude as much as it would mine. The true story was researched by Professor Allen Walker Read in the 1960s. Let me give you the facts as he uncovered them through his assiduous reading of local newspapers.

He records that “beginning in the summer of 1838, there developed in Boston a remarkable vogue of using abbreviations. It might well be called a craze”. He quotes many examples, including RTBS, “Remains To Be Seen”, GTDHD, “Give The Devil His Due”, OFM, “Our First Men” (a satirical description of Boston’s leading citizens), and SP, “Small Potatoes” (for something considered to be of little importance).

Professor Read traced the earliest recorded use of OK to the Boston Morning Post of 23 March 1839, in a report about a “frolicsome group” called the Anti-Bell Ringing Society (the ABRS), which campaigned to get a law banning the ringing of dinner bells rescinded. It seems to have been short for “oll korrect”, a fanciful way of writing “all correct” that was itself part of another popular craze of the time for misspellings as a humorous device and which echoes the story about President Jackson from the previous decade.

What ensured that this one example survived out of many in a hugely popular but short-lived fashion was that it was picked up by the Democrats in New York. They created a body called the Democratic OK Club to support their candidate, Martin Van Buren, who was standing for re-election in the 1840 presidential election against William Henry Harrison. OK here actually stood for “Old Kinderhook”, Van Buren’s nickname, taken from Kinderhook, his birthplace near Albany in New York State. The abbreviation became widely used during the campaign and survived Van Buren’s losing the election.

However, its origins quickly became lost, as anything linked to yesterday’s news usually does. Many earnest investigators have since tried to resolve the issue. Despite the fact that we have known the true story for the past forty years, people still keep coming up with ingenious but mistaken theories.

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Page created 05 Sep 1998