A Journey from Sarcasm to Ubiquity

Embarking on a global journey with a limited linguistic toolkit, you might wonder what word would be universally understood. The answer is “OK.” Despite being one of the most ubiquitous words in English, “OK” is relatively new, just over 180 years old, with its origins in 19th-century Boston. Interestingly, “OK” wasn’t a deliberate creation but an editorial joke that unintentionally became a worldwide phenomenon.

The story of “OK” began in the mid-19th century United States, where misspellings were considered top-tier humor. On March 23, 1839, the Boston Morning Post included a seemingly insignificant piece peppered with sarcasm towards a Providence newspaper. Hidden within this article was the abbreviation “o.k.” paired with “all correct.” This was a playful misspelling of “all correct” as “oll korrect,” a humorous trend among young, educated elites who enjoyed abbreviating misspelled words.

“OK’s” rise to fame, however, wasn’t immediate. It gained prominence a year after its debut, in part due to President Martin Van Buren. In his 1840 re-election campaign, his supporters utilized his nickname, Old Kinderhook, from his birthplace in Kinderhook, New York. They coined the phrase “Vote for OK” and formed the “OK Club,” using a symbolic hand gesture to represent it.

Van Buren’s opponent, William Henry Harrison, then linked OK with “oll korrect” to mock Van Buren and former President Andrew Jackson for their supposed lack of education. The myth that Jackson thought “ole kurrek” was the correct spelling of “all correct” and used “O.K.” to approve presidential papers became widespread. Eventually, Van Buren lost the election, but “OK” won a place in everyday language, appearing in a Slang Dictionary of Vulgar Words in 1864.

For over a century, its origins remained a topic of debate among linguists. Some linked it to Van Buren and Jackson, others to Orrin Kendall’s army biscuits, or a Choctaw chief named Old Keokuk. President Woodrow Wilson even suggested it came from a Choctaw word, “okeh.” It wasn’t until the 1960s that Allen Walker Read, a Columbia University English professor, traced “OK” back to the Boston Morning Post’s jest.

“OK” owes its widespread popularity largely to its simplicity and utility. Being just two letters long, it is one of the most concise affirmations in English. However, the effectiveness of a term in English doesn’t necessarily guarantee its adoption in other languages. Despite this, “OK” has transcended its American origins, becoming a global phenomenon.

This international usage largely stems from the extensive proliferation of American culture and products, particularly throughout the 20th century. “OK” effectively became another American export. Its integration into technology, such as becoming a standard label for affirmation buttons on computers, further cemented its presence worldwide. As English evolved into a common global language, the term “OK” increasingly entered the vocabulary of non-English speakers.

Editors’ finds

Words of wisdom

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” ―Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” ―Stephen King

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” ―Carl Sagan

“Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” ―Martin Luther King Jr.


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