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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
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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
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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
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@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
up vote 37 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
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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

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

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
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@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

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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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: https://web.archive.org/web/20120208134453/http://www.illinoisprairie.info/chocokeh.htm (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
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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
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@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
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+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 '15 at 3:56

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."

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/503/what-does-ok-stand-for

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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

Historical discussions of the origin of 'OK'

Here are some discussions of the etymology of OK through the years, arranged chronologically.

From "Great Rally of the Democracy, State Convention," in the Burlington [Vermont] Free Press (July 13, 1840):

After the resolutions had been read [at the Whig party's Vermont state convention] Mr. [Charles] ADAMS made some remarks in support of them, partly as he remarked, because he was a citizen of this state and partly because he was one of the committee which reported them. ... Mr. A. said that he noticed upon the banner at the head of one of the county delegations [from New York] the letters O. K. and that he had asked an explanation of their signification. He learned that while Gen. Jackson was president, he was in the habit of marking those bills which received his approval with these letters, as the initials of all correct: but he said that the feelings and judgment of the people now gave to them the more significant meaning of off to Kinderhook [the hometown of President Van Buren, a Democrat].

From The [Washington, D.C.] Madisonian (October 9, 1840):

The following definitions of O. K. are from the Baltimore Clipper. They are highly amusing:

"Vat zey mean by ze letter O. K., vich I see every day, almost two, tree, eleven times, in ze journal politique of ze day?" asked a French gentleman in a crowd yesterday. "I read ze grand national affair and ven I come to ze end I behold O. K! I glance my eye to ze report of ze election, and he begin wiz O. K. Every ting has O. K.—and I never shall comprehend him."

"Why sir," answered one of the company, looking very knowingly, "it means oll korrect-"

"No. mounseer," said another, "it stands for orful katastrophe."

"You're mistaken," says a third, "it means oll for Kent."

...

"That's wrong," says an eighth, "it means that the political writers having exhausted all the words in the English dictionary, have been compelled to resort to single letters to express themselves. Therefore it's oll kompelled."

So the Frenchman was just as wise as ever.

From Maximilian Schele de Vere, Americanisms: The English of the New World (1872):

American Politics abound in catch-words, the great majority of which pass away with the accident that gave them birth, while others please the fancy of the populace or acquire, by an unexpected success, such a hold on the public mind as to secure to them a longer lease of life. One of these is as ludicrous in its origin as tenacious in its persistency in the slang of the day. The story goes that General Jackson, better known in American history as Old Hickory, was not much at home in the art of spelling, and his friend and admirer, Major Jack Downing, found therefore no difficulty in convincing the readers of his "Letters" that the President employed the letters O. K. as an endorsement of applications for office and other papers. They were intended to stand for 'All Correct,' which the old gentleman preferred writing Oll Korrect, and hence they are used, to this day, very much in the sense of the English "All Right."

From W.S. Wyman, "Replies," in The Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries (August 1885):

In the language of the Choctaw Indians, one of the most frequently recurring expressions is the emphatic oke, with which an affirmation or denial is concluded. This oke (pronounced with strong accent on the last syllable) is one of the substitutes for the copulative verb to be which is wanted in Choctaw. Oke, as pronounced in Choctaw, has exactly the same sound as the alphabetic pronunciation of the letters O. K. in English.

The meaning of the expression, as nearly as it can be conveyed in English is: "That is true;" "That is all so." ...

To General Andrew Jackson is attributed the introduction of the Choctaw word into our Anglo-American speech. Before the war of 1812, in voyages up and down the Mississippi and in trading expeditions overland from Nashville, Tenn., to Natchez, Miss., through the Choctaw Nation, he was brought into frequent communication with the Choctaws.

General Jackson, as everybody knows, was prone to the use of downright and energetic methods of assertion. Hearing this emphatic oke so frequently uttered by the Choctaw people, he learned the meaning conveyed by it to the Choctaw mind, and appropriated it, out of hand, to his own purposes. From him it passed over to the multitude. This account of the origin of O. K. has been current in the South for many years. If not true, it is, to say the least, ben trovato.

From John Stephen Farmer, Americanisms—Old & New (1889):

O. K.—All right; all correct. Authorities differ as to the precise origin of this expression. The initials O. K. are supposed to stand for "all correct." The most likely derivation seems that told by De Vere, to the effect that General Jackson, better known in American history as Old Hickory, who was not much at home in the art of spelling, and that he employed the letters O. K. as an endorsement of applications for office and other papers, intending them to stand for "oll (orl) correct (korrect)".

From Charles Norton, Political Americanisms: A Glossary of Terms and Phrases Current at Different Periods in American Politics (1890):

O. K.—A common abbreviation for " all correct." The story runs that Andrew Jackson (President, 1825–33) puzzled his secretary by endorsing "O. K." on official papers that met his approval. Inquiry brought out the information that it stood for "all correct," and the secretary was left to infer that his chief spelled it "orl korrect." No doubt the story is a gross exaggeration, manufactured for campaign purposes, though it is admitted that Jackson was more of a soldier than a scholar.

From Albert Barrere & Charles Leland, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, volume 2 (1890):

O.K. (American telegraph), all correct, used to denote the line is clear, also to express anything very nice. An expression first attributed to President Jackson, who was said to have written O.K. for "all correct.

From Webster's International Dictionary (1890), in an appendix of "Abbreviations and Contractions Used in Writing and Printing" (the main text has no entry for OK):

O. K. All correct.

From James Maitland, The American Slang Dictionary (1891):

O. K. (Am.), an alleged condensation of "Orl Korrect" a misspelling of all correct. To "O. K." an account is to initial it in evidence of its correctness, and as the two letters are easily written the practice has become common in business circles.

From W. S. Wyman, "The Origin of 'O. K.'" in The Century Illustrated Magazine (1894):

The true explanation of O. K. is probably as follows: There is a tradition among the intelligent Choctaws of the old stock who once lived in Mississippi that General Jackson borrowed the expression O. K. from the Choctaw language.

...

General Jackson was frequently among the Choctaws and Chickasaws before he became famous. he must have heard this expression [okéh, meaning "It is true," "It is so," "It is all right," etc.] often.

From The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1897) [entry retained in editions through 1906]:

O. K. {Origin obscure: usually said to have been orig. used by Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States, as an abbr. of All Correct, spelled (whether through ignorance or humorously) oll korrect; but this is doubtless an invention. Another statement refers the use to "Old Keokuk," an Indian chief who is said to have signed treaties with the initials "O. K."} All right; correct: now commonly used as an indorsement, as on a bill. {Colloq.}

From The New International Encyclopædia, volume 13 (1903):

O. K. The story that General Jackson used these letters to indorse official papers as correct seems to have been started by Seba Smith (Major Downing), the humorist. It was a hit at Jackson's supposed illiteracy, and at a party cry during the Presidential campaign of 1832 acquired great vogue. Parton states that Jackson used to indorse legal documents O. R., order recorded, and the mistaking of the letters was probably the basis of Downing's jest. The term is also said to have originated with Josh Billings and has been ascribed to several other persons. Jacob Astor is said to have used it to indicate the standing of traders about whom he was questioned. In colonial days, the best tobacco and rum were imported from Aux Cayes, and from this fact Aux Cayes (O Kay) became a popular expression for excellence.

From The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1911) [repeated in the 1914 edition]:

O. K. {A humorous or ignorant spelling of what should be okeh, < Choctaw (Chakta) okeh, an 'article pronoun,' a kind of adjunct, meaning 'it is so,' having in the 'predicative form' a 'distinctive and final' use, 'okeh, it is so and in no other way'; also interjectionally, 'yai okeh, thanks to you' (Byington, "Grammar of the Choctaw Lang." p. 55); a use that may be compared with that of the Hebrew and European amen.} All right; correct: now commonly used as an indorsement, as on a bill. {Colloq.}

From Richard Thornton, An American Glossary, volume 2 (1912):

O.K. {See quotation 1828} A certificate of correctness. To O.K. a bill is to pronounce it correct.

The phrase was certainly used by Andrew Jackson. He may have taken it from the Choctaw Oke or Hoke, meaning "It is so." See Mag. Am. Hist. xiv. 212–213 (1885); also Century Mag., xlviii. 958–9 (1894). Or it may have been a mistake originally for O.R. The records of Sumner County, Tenn., contain this entry :— "October 6th, 1790. Andrew Jackson, Esq., proved a Bill of Sale from Hugh McGary to Gasper Mansker, for a negro man, which was O.K." Mr. James Parton ('Life of Jackson,' i. 136) suggests that this was a common western mistake for O.R., i.e., Ordered Recorded. See Mr. Matthews in Notes and Queries 11. S. iii. 390. The latter solution is probable.

[Earliest two cited instances:] 1828 In the Presidential campaign of 1828, General Jackson was accused by some of his opponents of being illiterate. It was alleged that he spelled the words "all correct" thus, "oll Korrct." Hence originated the abbreviation O.K.—Peter H. Burnett, 'Recollections,' p. 45 (N.Y. 1880). 1841 Jeremiah would be ashamed of his Lamentations, were he here to hear the modern Whigs mourning over the distresses of the people on account of a weak Treasury. O.K. Orful Kalamity.—Mr. Reynolds of Illinois, House of Repr., Feb. 5: Cong. Globe, p. 141, App.

From Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, third edition (1916), again in the "Abbreviations Used in Writing and Printing" appendix [same in the fourth edition (1931)]:

O.K, or OK. Correct; all right. Cant.

From "O-K-E-H" in the [Valley City, North Dakota] Weekly Times-Record (September 26, 1918):

Somebody once asked President Wilson why he always writes "Okeh" in approving memorandums and documents instead of the more common "O. K."

"Because O. K. is wrong," replied the president. "O-k-e-h is correct."

The White house attaches scurried for dictionaries, but the best they could find under "O. K." was that Andrew Jackson started it by spelling "all correct" "Oll Korrect."

"Look it up in the latest dictionary," suggested the president. They did, and this is what they found: "O. K.—A humorous or ignorant spelling of what should be 'okeh,' from the Choctaw language, meaning, 'It is so;' an article pronoun having a distinctive final use; all right; correct."

So "Okeh Woodrow Wilson," or more commonly, "Okeh W. W." bids fair to become as famous as Roosevelt's "Dee-lighted."—St. Paul [Minnesota] News.

From Ernest Weekley, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, volume 2 (1921):

o.k. For orl korrect. U.S. since 1790.

From Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, fifth edition (1936), the first edition in the Collegiate series to include an entry for O.K. in the main text of the dictionary:

O.K., or OK. {Prob. fr. Choctaw oke, hoke, yes, it is.} Colloq., exc[ept] in endorsing documents. Correct; all right.

From H.L. Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry Into the Development of English in the United States, fourth edition (1936), in the course of discussing ten theories about the origin of O.K.:

A ninth [etymology] derives it from a Choctaw word, okeh, signifying "it is so." "Webster's [Second] New International Dictionary" (1934) accepts this last, though adding a saving "probably," but the Supplement to the Oxford Dictionary (1933) rejects it, saying that "it does not agree with the evidence." There is yet a tenth etymology, whereby O.K. is made to originate in a libel of Andrew Jackson by Seba Smith (Major Jack Downing), who is said to have alleged, c. 1832, that he saw Jackson's endorsement "O.K., Amos," on the elegant pronunciamentoes drawn up for him by his literary secretary, Amos Kendall. Says a floating newspaper paragraph:

Possibly the general did use this endorsement, and it may have been used by other people also. But James Parton has discovered in the records of the Nashville court of which Jackson was a judge, before he became President, numerous documents endorsed O.R., meaning Ordered Recorded. He urges, therefore, that it was a record of that court with some belted business which Major Downing saw on the desk of the Presidential candidate. However this may be, the Democrats, in lieu of denying the charge, adopted the letters O.K. as a sort of party cry and fastened them upon their banners.

This last theory, it seems to me, deserves more investigation than it has got.

From Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, first edition (1937):

o.k. ; gen. O.K. ... Thornton records it at 1828 and gives an anticipation (likewise by Andrew Jackson) at 1790: but on these two instances the O.E.D. throws icy water and gives 1840 as the date. It either = oll (or orl) korrekt (or k'rekt) or is a Western U.S. error for order recorded (Thornton inclines to the latter origin); or again—the fashionable (but not the O.E.D. Sup.'s) view of the 1930's—it may represent the Choctaw (h)oke, it is so, for Jackson presumably knew the Choctaw word and it was his opponents who, wishing to capitalize his well-known illiteracy, imputed (so it is held) the orl k'rect origin to the phrase's first user.

From Allen Read, "The Evidence on 'O. K.'," in Saturday Review of Literature (1941) [combined snippets]:

When you first look at the vast quantity of writing on the origin of "O. K.", you find a wilderness of claims and counter-claims. But when you discard the hearsay evidence, the unfounded speculation, and the misread manuscripts, you get a reasonable pattern of historical development. I am able to present here the earliest documentary evidence; first, however, it is necessary to dispose of four alleged instances that arise from misrepresented manuscripts.

The earliest of these is dated December 8, 1565. The letters O. K. are said to occur at the end of the will of Thomas Cumberland, a lorimer of London, entered in the Archdeaconry Court registers. It is unreasonable to suppose that "O. K." as we know it could have lain dormant for nearly three hundred years. The finder of it, as he says in Notes and Queries for June 10, 1911, did not think that the letters were the initials of the scrivener, but some such explanation must be the case. Another alleged instance comes from the year 1757, but an examination of the manuscript shows that it is not "O. K." at all but an ill-written "Att.", standing for "Attestation" or "Attested by" at the end of a document. For many years faith has been put in an instance of 1790, from the records of Summer County, Tennessee, with this entry: “Andrew Jackson, Esq., proved a Bill of Sale from Hugh McGary to Gaspar Mansker, for a negro man, which was O. K." But an investigator has examined this manuscript, as he writes in American Speech for April, 1941, and finds that the "O. K." is clearly "O. R.", standing for "Order Recorded." Finally, an alleged instance of 1815 has recently turned up in the diary of a Boston businessman, William Richardson. The marks have the appearance of a small "o k" without periods, interlined at a blotted place in the manuscript; but they do not fit into the sense well and are out of tone with the other parts of the text. All things considered, we can consign the instances of 1565, 1757, 1790, and 1815 to the same limbo.

The story begins, then, in the Spring of 1840, and is closely bound up with the political situation in New York City. The Democratic Party was intent on re-electing Martin Van Buren for a second term, and they kept up interest, particularly in the radical Locofoco branch by means of a set of social clubs. On March 11, 1840, the Locofoco newspaper, the New York New Era, listed the clubs as follows—the Butt Enders, the Tammany Temple, the Indomitables, the Huge Paws (named for their symbol, a muscular arm grasping a hammer) the Van Buren Association, an the Simon Pures. Twelve days later a new club made its first public appearance by an announcement of a meeting to be held March 24, 1840. This was "The Democratic O. K. Club," and the name marks the first appearance of "O. K."

The meaning of the name was held a secret, in keeping with political practices of the time. The meteoric rise of the “Know-Nothing” party a few years later was based on a similar secrecy, with oaths not to reveal its mysteries. As we shall see later, this "O. K. Club" was named after "Old Kinderhook," the birthplace of Martin Van Buren, near Albany. In papers of the time Van Buren was referred to in such terms as "the magician of Kinderhook," "your cunning Kinderhook Fox," and "the Kinderhook pony." ...

From Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary [aka Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, sixth edition] (1949):

O.K., or OK. {From the O.K. Club, a Democratic organization supporting (1840) President Van Buren for re-election, fr. Old Kinderhook, N. Y., his birthplace. See Saturday Review of Literature, July 19, 1941} Colloq., exc[ept] in endorsing documents. Correct; all right.

From Midford Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (1951):

O.K., n. Also okay, okeh.

1. A member of the O.K. Club. Obs. [Earliest citation:] 1840 N.Y. D[ai]ly Express 9 April 2/2 The Whig young men have a grand rally tomorrow night. On Friday, come the Indomitables—O.K.'s.

2. The symbol or watchcry of the O.K. Club. Obs. or hist. [Earliest citation:] 1840 N.Y. D[ai]ly Express 3 April 2/2 About 9 o'clock a procession from the 10th and other up town wards marched down Center Street headed by a banner inscribed 'O.K.'

b. An alleged abbreviation of "Oll (all) Korrect." Obs. [Earliest citation:] 1840 Nat[ional] Intelligencer 7 April 1/2 The Locos translate 'O.K.' oll korrect (Locofoco orthography of which they are proud!)

From Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1963) [unchanged in the eighth edition (1973)]:

OK or okay {abbr. of oll korrect, alter. of all correct} : all right

From The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971):

O.K. Orig. U.S. Also okay, okeh. Originally used as an abbreviation for 'oll correct', misspelling of 'all correct'.

Alleged instances of O.K. in 1790 and 1828 have no evidence to support them. The earliest occurrence so far noted is in the Boston Transcript of 15 April 1840. In this and two examples from April and June the meaning is not clear, but the explanation 'oll korrect' appears on June 18 (see below). The attribution to Gen. Jackson was probably not intended to be taken seriously. Other jocular extensions of the initials follow in the same year. The suggestion that they represent the Choctaw oke 'it is' first appears in 1885, and does not accord with the evidence.

[Earliest cited examples:] 1840 Atlas (Boston) 18 June 2/1The band rode in a stage, which had a barrel of Hard Cider on the baggage rack, marked with large letters 'O.K.'—oll korrect. Ibid. 19 Aug. 2/4 These initials, according to Jack Downing, were first used by Gen. Jackson. 'Those papers, Amos {Kendall}, are all correct. I have marked them O.K.' (oll korrect). The Gen. was never good at spelling.

From Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary (1983) [unchanged in the tenth (1993) and eleventh (2003) editions]:

OK or okay {abbr. of oll korrect, facetious alter. of all correct} (1839) : all right


My assessment

Searches of the Google Books database and the Library of Congress Chronicling America newspaper database confirm that it is extremely difficult to find a legitimate instance of OK in the sense of "all right" or "all correct" from before 1840. Merriam-Webster claims to have found an instance from 1839 but—as far as I know—MW hasn't made the details of that instance public. A sudden upsurge in instances in 1840, especially toward the end of the year, suggests that that was the year when usage of the term became so common that newspapers could effectively devote space to talking about where the phrase originated—and to post jokes about it such as a brief item asserting that, according to "the Ladies," it stood for "only kissing," and a longer piece called "O. K. Orkward Kondition" that jokingly suggested meanings ranging from "Onavailable Kandidate" (Daniel Webster) to "Oh! Klay" (Henry Clay).

As the OED points out, any reference to an instance of OK prior to 1839–1840 is highly suspect, given the absence of corroborating documentation. This in turn makes claims about use of the term during or before Andrew Jackson's Presidency (1829–1837) highly suspect.

Another significant aspect of "O. K." across much of the nineteenth century is how little attention mainstream dictionaries paid it until about 1890. Worcester's dictionary of 1871 and Webster's big dictionaries of 1828, 1840, 1847, and 1864 ignore OK completely. Webster's International Dictionary (1890) is the first to acknowledge the term at all, and it treats it merely as an abbreviation of all correct. That left the discussion of the term's etymology to newspapers, memoirists, and language observers of varying levels of qualification.

Interestingly, none of the major figures of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century prescriptivist grammar—Seth Hurd, Richard Bache, Ebenezer Brewer, Charles Bardeen, John Bechtel, Albert Raub, Ralcy Bell, Frank Vizetelly, and others—whose work I consulted have anything to say about OK. It's as though the expression were so far outside the mainstream of U.S. English speech that the sentinels of proper English saw no need to condemn it.

In any event, the first general dictionary to give O.K. its own main-text entry was the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia of 1897–1914, followed by Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition (1934) and its more compact spin-off, Webster's Fifth Collegiate Dictionary (1936).

Both Century and Webster's change their etymologies for O.K.Century from "Origin obscure" (1897–1910) to "Choctaw okeh" (1911–1914+); and Webster's from "Cant" (1916–1935) to "Chocktaw okeh" (1936–1948) to "Old Kinderhook" (1949–1962) to "oll korrect" (1963–present). In the various etymologies that the mainstream dictionaries offer, it's worth noticing that the heyday of the Choctaw okeh interpretation lasted for about 40 years, from the arrival of the 1911 Century dictionary until the arrival of the 1949 Webster's Sixth Collegiate. And even during the 1911–1948 interval, such serious students of etymology as Richard Thornton, Ernest Weekley, and H. L. Mencken favored other hypotheses.

The Choctaw okeh hypothesis was put forward on two separate occasions (in 1885 and again in 1894) by the same man—W.S. Wyman, a professor of Latin at the University of Alabama and an active member of the Alabama Historical Society. During the late 1800s and on into the early 1900s, many people believed that O.K.'s existence in English stretched back to a documented instance of use by Andrew Jackson in 1790; Jackson's years as an Indian fighter in a part of North America where Choctaw was the predominant Native American language lent further credence to the claim. But if you drop Jackson out of the picture, bump the first established instance of usage of "O. K." from 1790 to 1839–1840, and observe that the earliest confirmed instances of the term took the form of a swarm of occurrences in New York and New England during campaign maneuvering between supporters of President Martin Van Buren (who came from a small town near Albany, New York) and members of the regional Whig opposition leading up to the 1840 election, the case for the Choctaw hypothesis becomes substantially weaker.

This, I think, is what the OED means when it says that the argument on behalf of the Choctaw okeh connection "does not accord with the evidence."

Like the fictional Frenchman in The Madisonian in late 1840, I still don't know what the origin of OK is. But I think it's more likely to have been an abbreviation—fractured or not—of a phrase that already existed in English than a word imported and oddly transliterated from another language.

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Your answer is really long; I did end up reading it and I found it useful, but I was kind of intimidated at first, and normally I like reading longer posts. Weirdly, though, there's something more I wish it covered that it doesn't: the spelling "okeh" (since the link Ron Maimon posted seems to claim that this is an older spelling). – sumelic Jan 6 at 11:53
    
@sumelic: A search of the Library of Congress newspaper database for okeh during the period 1835–1850 yields 16 claimed matches—all false positives, for misread words such as oaken, unbroken, brokers, and other. The database has numerous valid matches for O. K. during the same period. ... – Sven Yargs Jan 6 at 17:24
    
...The earliest Google Books match for okeh is to Cyrus Byington, Grammar of the Choctaw Language (1870) and then to Wyman's Century Magazine article/letter (1894). ... – Sven Yargs Jan 6 at 17:26
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...Then in an item titled "The Term O. K.," in Farm Implement News (June 21, 1906), quoting the Boston Herald, we learn that "'Okeh' was in common use among whites who had dealings with the Choctaws more than thirty years before the Van Buren campaign [of 1840]." But the article doesn't provide citations to confirmed, recorded examples of that usage from the period 1810–1839, and I haven't been able to find any. – Sven Yargs Jan 6 at 17:26
    
Thanks! I also wasn't able to find examples of pre-1840 use of "okeh" outside of Choctaw learning materials. – sumelic Jan 6 at 18:54

protected by RegDwigнt Jan 5 '12 at 16:27

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