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I've heard lots of varying histories of the term "OK".

Is there any evidence of the true origin of the term?

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According to Wikipedia, the first written usage was in 1815 and the first usage in print in 1839. – aphoria Aug 5 '10 at 19:57
Everyone needs to have some answer to this question so they have a story to tell when it comes up. Mine is that it comes from the French au quai, or "to the dock," said of cotton that had been approved for loading on a ship. – Edward Tanguay Aug 5 '10 at 20:56
It terrifies me to think that 80 years from now people may be discussing the true origin of the slang verb "haz" especially as it relates to cheezburgers. – davebug Aug 5 '10 at 22:21
This article from the BBC website is interesting, even if we don't end up any closer to the true origins of the expression! – D_Bye Mar 10 '11 at 15:37
@davebug: "So, professor, you're saying the etymology is..." "yes, people thought it would be funny to misspell everything. ne1 haz more questions?" – Claudiu Mar 14 '11 at 20:29

6 Answers 6

up vote 36 down vote accepted

According to the OED, it's an initialism of oll (or orl) korrect, first seen in 1839, something apparently quite funny. It was reinforced by another initialism OK from the nickname of president Martin Van Buren, Old Kinderhook during his electoral campaign. The verb was null-derived from this around 1882.

Other ideas include that it was a Choctaw word oke, meaning 'it is'; also the French and Scottish ideas as well.

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What does "null-derived" mean? – Hugo Oct 18 '11 at 13:03
Just found more or less the same story in The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories (1991, p.329). – Neil Fein Oct 29 '11 at 20:30
Boston News papers in the 1800s had a thing for purposely misspelling acronyms. I've seen a list on the net somewhere. "OK" indeed was for "All Correct". It would have been forgotten with the rest except Van Buren barrowed it for the "OK Club" (his supporters), which cemented the term into people's minds. – Chris S Jan 5 '12 at 18:03
The Ok is a fabrication, the Choctaw derivation is correct. It is irresponsible to repeat the backronym as the origin. – Ron Maimon Mar 10 '12 at 7:43

In my history class last year, I was told that it originated from US President Martin van Buren's campaign slogan, "Old Kinderhook." According to Wikipedia, that's only one theory. Etymonline says that "Oll Korrect" is the origin, and "Old Kinderhook" is how it became popular.

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I like the Wikipedia section that indicates African origin. It looks to me that variants of different african expressions have this meaning, and may be the first seed to pick it up in modern english because of use by african slaves in America. – awe Jun 29 '11 at 9:01
@awe: The African languages only gave a few words to English, because they were not maintained for several generations. Frontier Choctaw, on the other hand, used the term in all its modern meanings, with the same pronunciation. There should be no doubt of its Choctaw origins. – Ron Maimon Mar 10 '12 at 7:45

The etymology from a jokey acronym is a 1960s fabrication. There is no way that such nonsense would catch on without a reinforcing loan-word borrowing. The acronyms by themselves are not funny. They become funny if people were already using terms that sounded like these acronyms, and these terms were poking fun at illiterate misunderstandings of these terms.

Like in a region with many spanish speakers, the following acronym might be funny:

C.C.: Correct, Captain (Si, Si)

In the 19th century, the U.S. was not an English speaking nation--- only the settled parts were. The frontier parts had large Choctaw speaking swaths, and settlers and natives had to be at least bilingual to get along. There is no doubt that a large number of loanwords were floating around at the time, and some of them might sound like some letters. Then if someone wrote down a dictionary of abbreviations that sounded like Choctaw loanwords, it would actually be funny. OK as "Oll Korrect" for example.

Due to the atrocious American Native policies, the death marches and so on, anything to do with natives was systematically erased from the collective memory, and replaced by nonsense. I believe that Ok is frontier Choctaw, Okeh (pronounced okay), and was given a non-native etymology as part of the program of erasing native contributions from the collective memory.

See this page for a complete convincing argument, a demolition of the fabricated "Oll Korrect" or "Old Kinderhook" etymologies (both related), and more detail: (link broke, uses wayback machine). The dictionaries of the 19th century knew it was Choctaw.

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I do not really buy the "it could not have been funny" part. Just because we do not find it humourous nowadays it does not mean it was not back then. There is a lot of nonsense catching up even nowadays. – nico Jun 18 '12 at 17:28
The current popularity of LOLspeak - "I can haz cheeseburger" shows that intentional bad spelling and grammar can be and remains funny to some people in the right context. – Oldcat Jan 7 '14 at 18:50
Why don't you cite one of these 19th century dictionaries? Ideally, a citation before 1839 would be best, since your etymology would need to pre-date the OED's to be correct. – nomen Apr 27 '14 at 1:25
@PeterShor: You misunderstood--- I agree that the initialism is an 1830s construction (or if you like "fabrication"), the word does appear as ok or OK all the time, but this should not be considered a fabrication in 1830s, because the origin of the word in Choctaw was common knowledge at the time, the word is associated with frontier people in Choctaw territory and has Native connotations. The Choctaw etymology remained more esoteric common knowledge until Woodrow Wilson's time, and continued to be common knowledge until Read purposefully substituted a cock-and-bull fake etymology for it. – Ron Maimon Aug 27 '14 at 14:26
+1. When I first read this page a few months ago, I was really put off by the tenor of a lot of your comments here; but then I clicked your links and was fully convinced by them, and the more I've thought about it since then, the angrier I've gotten about the "oll korrect" story. I mean, I realize that the word "OK" is not exactly a work of art, but it's one of American English's most universally successful cultural exports (which is really saying something), and it seems like a really low blow to deny its Native origin. – ruakh Mar 24 at 3:56

The consensus opinion is that it likely derived from a jokey abbreviation for "oll korrect," which was hilarious back in the 19th century.

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Yes, this is the consensus opinion, and the consensus opinion is wrong. It was established by Read, who happened to edit a major journal on etymology, which goes to show you how much damage one academic in a position of power can do. – Ron Maimon Apr 30 '14 at 4:24

I'm really surprised no one linked to this excellent article on The Straight Dope:

"The etymology of OK was masterfully explained by the distinguished Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read in a series of articles in the journal American Speech in 1963 and 1964."

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-1: Read my answer, and the linked article to see why this is a terrible answer. This Read guy invented the stupidest cock-and-bull story for this word, and it became established and taught in schools. One must not tell lies. – Ron Maimon Aug 14 '12 at 6:11

Yes. The consensus opinion is probably right. In the early 19th century, it became all the rage to have playfully misspelled/mispronunciations/abbreviations for common phrases -- "all correct" became "oil korrect"; A.C. became O.K. The Martin Van Buren presidential campaign reinforced usage of the "OK" entity. He hailed from "Old Kinderhook", New York -- a reference to a section of land where children played or which had a rock formation that looked like a child's face.

"Old Kinderhook is OK" was his campaign slogan.

As an aside, many people think that the word "hooker" came directly from General Joseph Hooker of the U.S. Union Army in the Civil War (1861-1865). He and his men were hard drinkers and frequented prostitutes, and the story goes that the women seen around him became known as "hooker's women", then just "hookers".

But the term "hooker"was in use in England in the 1840s, long before the General became a household name. As with "Old Kinderhook", there may have been reinforcement of the term, but it certainly wasn't started by him.

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protected by RegDwigнt Jan 5 '12 at 16:27

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