It’s alright and it’s definitely OK

3 Mar
Martin Van Buren (December 5, 1782—July 24, 18...

Image via Wikipedia

The BBC recently ran a brilliant article about the history of the word ‘OK’, which, from rather hazy origins in the last century, has slipped unnoticed to become one of the world’s most used words.

The article even makes the point that languages, other than English, have adopted their own version of ‘OK’, such as the Native American Choctaw “Okeh”, meaning “it is so”, the Greek “Ola kala” meaning “all is right” or the Finnish “Oikea” – “correct”.

The author, Allan Metcalfe, who’s written a book on the history of OK, suggests that the near universal usage of this word might be because of the visual appeal of the combination of the round O and the straight K, or that it might be because the sounds ‘O’, ‘K’ and the following ‘ay’ are common to all languages.

More interestingly, he suggests that OK fills a gap in language – it’s a neutral form of agreement.  It allows you to concur without expressing any kind of opinion, as you might do if you said ‘good’ or ‘great’.

The earliest recorded usage of the word is American, appearing in a Boston paper in 1839, as a playful abbreviation of ‘All Correct’ – ‘oll korrect’.  There was a vogue for such comedy abbreviations at the time – something that we recognise now with things like “WTF” or “LMAO”.

OK might have languished as mere wrapping for fish and chips, but for a presidential candidate (and eventual President) Martin Van Buren, whose nickname of Old Kinderhook meant that OK got a proper leg-up into our language.

The usage of ‘OK’ then spiralled at great speed – and rapidly became a common part of parlance within only a matter of years.  And 170 years later, we’re using it more frequently than ever before.  I have to confess that I must use it several times a day, particularly when  sending texts or instant messages.

But the origins of OK are not without controversy – yet none of the other theories (derivation from the Scottish ‘Och Aye’, or the Choctaw ‘Okeh’) are as well documented as the Boston origin.

It’s amazing to me that a two-letter word, entering the language comparatively recently, could become as widely used as it is – and yet still have its origins so clouded.  It’s definitely an a-ok story.



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