It’s short. It’s elegant. It generally affirms. It’s recognizable in almost any language. But what does “OK” even mean?
The origins of the word “OK” are a bit mysterious because so many phrases from so many different languages sound similar or seem related. Take, for instance, the Scots’ “och aye,” which means “oh yes,” or the Greek “ola kala,” which means “all good.” Many believed that “OK” came from the Choctaw “oke” or “okeh,” meaning “it is so.” It seems like the O and K sounds are destined to unite in service of acknowledging information.
However, the influence of “OK” as we know it today can be traced most readily back to a Bostonian editorial joke. In the 1830s, young highbrows in the know would intentionally misspell and abbreviate words, using “KC” for “Knuff Ced,” “KY” for “Know Yuse” and “OW” for “Oll Wright.” In 1839, the Boston Morning Post published a satirical article poking fun at poor spelling in which “OK” stood for “Oll Korrect.” All correct was already a common phrase meaning that all was in order, so it wasn’t long before other newspapers picked up on the little inside joke and spread it across the country.
Then, Martin Van Buren, also known as Old Kinderhook, used “OK” in his campaign for reelection as president in 1840. In other words, Old Kinderhook was all correct. The snappy slogan failed to save Van Buren’s presidency (his opponents turned “OK” around on him, saying it stood for “Orful Katastrophe.” Ouch.) but succeeded in embedding “OK” in the American vernacular.
“OK” found a functional purpose thanks to the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s. The letters O and K together were represented by an easy and recognizable sequence of dots and dashes: •• –•–. “OK” became the standard reply signifying that a message was received.
Another reason “OK” sticks around is because there’s something about the way “OK” looks. The two letters just fit together so nicely. K is also an uncommon letter, so companies love using it because it draws the eye: Kool-Aid, Kraft, Kleenex, Krispy Kreme.
Although the footage was unclear, “OK” might have been the first word spoken when humans landed on the moon, courtesy of Buzz Aldrin.
“OK” has infinite capacity for meaning. When someone “gets home OK,” they’re safe. With a cheery “OK!” someone agrees to a plan. A drawn out “ooh-kay then” means the someone is frustrated or weirded out but moving on. To “give the OK” is to allow something. When someone says, “I’m OK,” they’re alright. But, Demi Lovato reminds us, it’s “OK Not To Be OK.” Then again, in the words of AT&T, “just OK is not OK.” OK is good, alright, excited, condescending, sarcastic, disappointed, fine or acceptable all rolled into one. It’s simple and makes no sense, and therefore somehow so American.
By the way, last year Lake Superior State University put “OK, boomer” on its annual “List of Words (and Phrases) Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.” Nice.