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Seriously: 'OK' Began as a Joke in a Newspaper in Boston in 1839



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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: We talk with Allan Metcalf, author of the new book "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word."

RS: And not just the greatest word, in his view.

ALLAN METCALF: "America's most important word. The most successful American export to the rest of the world. And also the embodiment of the American philosophy, the American way of thinking."

AA: "All this, packed into two letters."

ALLAN METCALF: "Yes, that's the beauty of it and that's the economy of it. One of the two aspects of the American view of the world is pragmatism, getting things done. Even if they're not perfect, they're OK. And the nice thing about OK is it doesn't imply that everything is perfect or beautiful or wonderful. In fact, it's a neutral affirmation. When you say 'That's OK' or someone asks you 'How are you?' and you say 'I'm OK,' it doesn't mean that you're in perfect health. But it also doesn't mean that you're sick.

RS: "OK [is] just two letters of the alphabet. Do they stand for something?"

Seriously: 'OK' Began as a Joke in a Newspaper in Boston in 1839

Seriously: 'OK' Began as a Joke in a Newspaper in Boston in 1839

ALLAN METCALF: "Well, they do, as a matter of fact. One of the curious things about OK that makes it require a whole book to tell its story is that it began as a joke. It was on March 23, 1839, in a Boston newspaper, that the newspaper first used 'o.k.' and explained those as an abbreviation for 'all correct.' And, of course, the joke was that 'o' is not the beginning of 'all' and 'k' is not the beginning of 'correct.' So this thing supposedly all correct was not all correct."

AA: "Kind of a sarcastic joke, or what was it meant to be?"

ALLAN METCALF: "Well, it was not so sarcastic. It turned out that at that time in Boston there were all sorts of supposedly humorous abbreviations in the newspapers of that sort. And most of these abbreviations completely disappeared. And you could well imagine that they would, because they were rather stupid.

"But it turns out that in the next year, 1840, in the American presidential election of 1840, a man named Martin Van Buren was running for re-election. He happened to come from Kinderhook, New York, and so somebody thought of calling him 'Old Kinderhook' and then thought of founding clubs supporting him throughout the country, called OK Clubs. OK, Old Kinderhook, is OK, all correct or all right. And that suddenly gave continued life and prominence to OK.

"And then there was a third, very strange thing that happened. During that presidential election year, Martin Van Burne's predecessor as president had been Andrew Jackson, and so there was an attack on Andrew Jackson by an opponent of Van Buren. The attack said that Jackson couldn't spell, so that Jackson would look at a document and if he approved of it, he would write OK on it, meaning it was all correct. Now it turns out that that was a complete hoax.

"It turns out that Andrew Jackson actually could spell pretty well, and the curator of the documents of Andrew Jackson confirms that he never wrote OK on a document. But as a result of that story, within about twenty years people really began marking OK on documents, as they have done ever since. And so it took on a practical, down-to-earth aspect that ultimately developed into the OK we know today."

RS: But Allan Metcalf says the idea that OK began as a joke kept people trying to guess where it really came from.

ALLAN METCALF: "The OK-as-Andrew-Jackson's hoax was the first misleading statement of its origins. And then around the 1880s a professor decided that the true origin was from the Choctaw Indian language, where they had an expression like OK which means 'it is so,' and for various reasons that was proposed as the true explanation for OK. They spelled it 'okeh,' and the only American president ever to have a PhD, Woodrow Wilson, thought that was the correct explanation, so he would mark o-k-e-h on documents."

AA: And, as we will hear next week, there is more to "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word." Allan Metcalf is an English professor at MacMurray College in Illinois and executive secretary of the American Dialect Society.

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Transcripts and MP3s of our program are at voanews.com/wordmaster. With Avi Arditti. I'm Rosanne Skirble.


Or download MP3 (Right-click or option-click and save link)

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: We're back with the author of the new book "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word."

RS: Last week, Allan Metcalf explained how OK began as a joke on March 23, 1839. That was the day a Boston newspaper first used it as a humorous, misspelled abbreviation for "all correct." Other factors later helped propel OK into wider use.

AA: But not everyone thought OK was OK, says Allan Metcalf.

ALLAN METCALF: "Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, it was well-known, but there were places where it was not used. And one of them was by writers of fiction. All the good writers seemed to avoid OK, like Mark Twain, who certainly used slang, and Brett Hart. Both of them could easily have used OK. They must have known it. But they avoided it."

AA: "What did they use in its place?"

ALLAN METCALF: "Just something like 'all right' or 'that will do' or whatever else. And then there's a very interesting case. Louisa May Alcott wrote a book called 'Little Women' about twenty years after OK was invented. And, in it, there's one OK in a letter from one of the girls to her sisters.

"And then that was revised for a second edition, and OK was removed and 'cozy' was put in instead. So everything is 'cozy' instead of everything is 'OK.' So there must have been some sense that OK was too silly a term to use even in fiction."

RS: "How does OK in our vocabulary represent who we are as Americans?"

ALLAN METCALF: "One way that it represents who we are is that it represents the pragmatic sense of getting it done. Maybe not getting it done perfectly, but it's OK. But the other way began with a book published in 1967 by a guy named Thomas Harris. The book is called 'I'm OK -- You're OK.' And the book happens to be about a kind of psychology known as transactional analysis.

"Now most of us have either forgotten or never heard about transactional analysis. But that brilliant statement, 'I'm OK -- You're OK,' which happens also to be the only famous quotation ever involving OK, is one that has seeped into our American consciousness.

"And I think nowadays we as a people are much more tolerant than we used to be, partly because 'I'm OK' -- that means I can do what I want. 'You're OK' -- you can do what you want. Maybe we aren't doing the same thing, but that's OK."

RS: "And speaking of OK, do you think OK also has not only a past longevity, but a future?"

ALLAN METCALF: "It's hard to imagine a world without OK, and I mean not just America without OK but any other part of the world. I've received a few anecdotes about OK once my book was published. It was used in Polish. That's one anecdote. Another in French.

"I'd be very pleased if your listeners would send me any stories about how OK is used in their countries. I'm thinking of a sequel called 'OK Around the World.'"

RS: "We'll try to help you on that."

AA: "Speaking of these other languages, you mention that there are similar terms in other languages. Did any of those come before OK, or have they all emerged since then?"

ALLAN METCALF: "The Greek language has an expression something like 'olla kalla' which means 'all good,' which has been around in Greek for a couple of thousand years. And so when OK was imported-exported to Greece, the Greeks thought 'Oh, that's an abbreviation of one of our expressions.' But there's absolutely no connection leading from Greece to the American Boston in 1839."

AA: "And there are so many ways it's written: O.K., OK without periods, o-k-a-y. Is there one you prefer?"

ALLAN METCALF: "Well, for my book, since I wanted to emphasize OK, I used capital O, capital K without periods. But those other spellings that you mention are also legitimate. The original OK was 'o.k.' And if you want to make it look more like an ordinary word, you spell it 'okay.'"

RS: Allan Metcalf is the author of "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word."

AA: Let us know if you use OK in your language.

RS: OK?

AA: Go to voanews.com/wordmaster, click on the Contact Us link and tell us your story. We'll forward it to Allan Metcalf.

RS: That's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I’m Rosanne Skirble.

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