Why “OK” Is America’s Most Useful and Compact Invention

What the history of the word OK can tell us about American concision, psychology, and language.

What the history of the word OK can tell us about American concision, psychology, and language.

OK is a word so omnipresent, useful, and casual that it feels like it’s existed since the dawn of time. It’s hard to imagine how people could have spoken and written with those two little letters.

It’s also hard to imagine that two letters could encompass as much history and human experience as OK, but there’s no need for the imagination: Allan Metcalf’s book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word traces its journey from “joke to business tool and then to staple of everyday conversation and an attitude toward life.” Metcalf provides many snapshots of American history, with detours into the worlds of business and celebrity and psychology, while painting a vivid portrait of the weird, wild process of word evolution. I think you’ll find the yarn Metcalf spins to be far better than OK.

The origin of OK is an odd, unlikely one: It was a joking abbreviation for “all correct,” invented by Charles Gordon Greene in 1839 in the Boston Morning Post. In anticipation of your “huh?” you have to understand that abbreviations, especially humorous abbreviations, were in vogue in Boston at the time, kind of like our current world of LOL, ROTFL, and ZOMG. This trend produced many unsuccessful terms such as OW—an OK-like term for “oll wright” (all right) that flopped.

This origin was a lot for OK to overcome. Words that are jokes have a difficult route to success, and the silliness and obtrusiveness of OK should have doomed it to a quick exit from the language. As Metcalf showed in his previous book, Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success, words that are most likely to succeed blend in as if they were there all along; successful words tend to be stealthy and unassuming. OK was as stealthy as a dinosaur bone dropped in a punchbowl.

Fortunately, OK was as lucky as it was weird. Its first bit of good fortune was that Martin Van Buren’s hometown of Old Kinderhook allowed “OK” to be appropriated in 1840 as a name for the “OK Club”—which was part of the Democratic Party—and as a rallying cry for Van Buren, who ran for reelection (unsuccessfully) against William Henry Harrison. That started OK fever. With the real origin already forgotten, many false etymologies popped up, until a persuasive one took hold. Taking advantage of Andrew Jackson’s reputation as an uneducated rube, James Gordon Bennett concocted a false document that showed Jackson using and coining OK as an abbreviation of “Ole Kurrek.” This story was compelling and solidified OK’s place in English, where it soon spread as a tool for approving documents. So just as a joke accompanied OK’s birth, a hoax allowed it to live to a ripe old age.

I’m leaving out about 8,000 steps in OK’s story, but here’s one step I won’t neglect: In the early 1960’s, lexicographer Allen Walker Read uncovered the Boston origin of OK. Without him, we would probably still believe some of the bushels of OK-related bunk that exist, such as the theories that it came from a Choctaw or African word, or that it really was Andrew Jackson’s goof rather than Charles Gordon Greene’s joke. If Metcalf is the Michael Jordan of OK, Read is the Bill Russell.

Like, any successful word, OK has children. “AOK” was an invention of astronauts that was easier to hear over static than plain old OK. We’ve been saying “okey-doke” since the 1920s and “okey-dokey” since the thirties. We have Ned Flanders to thank for “okeley-dokely,” while South Park’s Mr. Mackey is the patron doofus of “m’kay” (though it was used earlier on Beavis and Butthead and Office Space). The “old okey doke” dates from the sixties, and refers to a type of hoodwinking or trickery. Since 1972, folks have been referring to the mythical OK Corral as a place for showdowns and smackdowns, as seen in the first known use: “‘California’, said Carl Wagner, at 26 a seasoned veteran of the McGovern primary battles, ‘is the gunfight at OK Corral.’”

A major factor in OK’s success is its adaptability. Metcalf praises its “hydra-headedness,”—meaning that OK can be a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, interjection, abbreviation, or acronym (technically, an initialism). It can be spelled “o.k.,” “ok,” “O.K.,” “OK,” “okay,” and sometimes “okey” or “okeh.” That adaptability also applies to its meaning. OK is affirmative, but it doesn’t gush or overpromise. Few things in the world will ever be outstanding, wonderful, top-notch, or world-class, but many things are OK. Such flexibility made OK perfect fodder for Thomas A. Harris, when his 1967 book I’m OK, You’re OK merged transactional psychology and OK in a marriage that took both to greater heights. That book had a huge effect on OK’s legacy. As Metcalf puts it “ could be argued that with I’m OK, You’re OK as a catalyst, in the 21st century OK became a whole two-letter American philosophy of tolerance, even admiration, for difference.”

So get this book, OK? If you love words, history, or Americana, you’ll find it fascinating. You may even agree with Metcalf that we should celebrate OK on March 23, its birthday. “OK Day” certainly has a ring to it.