‘I’m OK means ‘I’m fine’. But if you say the weather’s OK in a lazy drawl, it could mean ‘so-so’. When you respond with an OK at the end of someone’s explanation, you could be saying, ‘Alright, I get what you’re saying’. And when someone explains that ‘This is the way to do it, OK?’ it means, ‘Have you understood?’

What is the origin of OK? [Illustration by Shinod AP]
What is the origin of OK? [Illustration by Shinod AP]

One abbreviation, many meanings. And like all delightful accidents of history, the origin of this multi-faceted OK seems to lie in a humourous misspelling of the words ‘all correct’ as ‘orl korrect’, approximately 170 years ago, in the US.

So says the dictionaries team of the Oxford Word and Language Service (OWLS), whose job it is to answer the queries of curious users of the English language. OWLS was launched by the Oxford University Press in 1983, which periodically publishes a compilation of many such queries. Among those questions is one on the origin of OK.

Many other explanations have been put forth, such as the Greek ola kala (‘it is good’), and the French aux Cayes , (‘from Cayes’, Cayes being a Haitian port known for its good quality rum). Some have also wondered if OK originated from the initials of Obeidah Kelly, a railway freight agent who wrote his initials OK on the documents that he had checked!

What is the origin of OK?
What is the origin of OK?

‘Orl korrect’ seems to have won because it is supported by documentary evidence. Its earliest recorded use can be found in the Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839. Though, in the 1840s, supporters of a politician Martin Van Buren formed the OK (Old Kinderhook) Club, named so after the birthplace Kinderhook (New York) of the politician.

In fact, a judicial case of 1935 was decided on the basis of the ‘orl korrect’ origin of OK! It was a case involving a Japanese rice merchant, Nippon Menkwa Kabushiki Kaesha versus Dawson’s Bank, in the US. The rice merchant had written OK along with his initials on some of the invoices. The case was decided on the basis that OK was to be taken as the full words ‘All Correct’!

Now someone needs to find out how and when OK got modified to Okidokey! Any takers apart from OWLS?

384 words | 5 minutes
Readability: Grade 8 (13-14 year old children)
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: 5ws and h
Tags: #oxford, #politicians

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