April 19, 2014 19:54 UTC

Words and Their Stories

Words and Their Stories: Where Did 'OK' Come From?

A look at what may be the most commonly used word in the world.

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Now, the VOA Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.

Millions of people all over the world use the word OK. In fact, some people say the word is used more often than any other word in the world. OK means all right or acceptable. It expresses agreement or approval. You might ask your brother, "Is it okay if I borrow your car?” Or if someone asks you to do something, you might say, “Okay, I will.” Still, language experts do not agree about where the word came from.

Some people say it came from the Native American Indian tribe known as the Choctaw. The Choctaw word okeh means the same as the American word okay. Experts say early explorers in the American West spoke the Choctaw language in the nineteenth century. The language spread across the country.

But many people dispute this. Language expert Allen Walker Read wrote about the word OK in reports published in the nineteen sixties. He said the word began being used in the eighteen thirties. It was a short way of writing a different spelling of the words “all correct.” Some foreign-born people wrote “all correct” as “o-l-l k-o-r-r-e-c-t,” and used the letters O.K. Other people say a railroad worker named Obadiah Kelly invented the word long ago. They said he put the first letters of his names -- O and K -- on each object people gave him to send on the train.

Still others say a political organization invented the word. The organization supported Martin Van Buren for president in eighteen forty. They called their group, the O.K. Club. The letters were taken from the name of the town where Martin Van Buren was born — Old Kinderhook, New York.

Not everyone agrees with this explanation, either. But experts do agree that the word is purely American. And it has spread to almost every country on Earth. 

Then there is the expression A-OK. This means everything is fine. A-OK is a space-age expression. It was used in nineteen sixty-one during the flight of astronaut Alan Shepard. He was the first American to be launched into space. His flight ended when his spacecraft landed in the ocean, as planned. Shepard reported: "Everything is A-OK.”

However, some experts say the expression did not begin with the space age. One story says it was first used during the early days of the telephone to tell an operator that a message had been received. 

There are also funny ways to say okay. Some people say okey-dokey or okey-doke. These expressions were first used in the nineteen thirties. Today, a character on the American television series, “The Simpsons,” says it another way. He says okely-dokely.

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This program was written by Shelley Gollust. I'm Faith Lapidus. You can find more WORDS AND THEIR STORIES at our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com.

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