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Last update:
  13-Jul-01
1996-2004
  Mike Todd

Where did OKAY come from?

There can be no more universal term that Okay. It is used in just about every language in the world, and its use is probably even more widespread than Coca-Cola. Yet nobody really knows for sure where it originated. In fact, just as there can be no more universal term, there can also be no more controversial when it comes to determining its origin.

The reality is that most theories are folklore, invented (albeit based on real occurrences) to try to provide a definitive explanation. Personally, I subscribe to the "coincidental coinage" theory - that is, "OK" was in isolated and independent verbal use in a number of places in the very early part of the 19th century prior to its first written appearance (in the Boston Morning Post, on March 23rd, 1839). It would have faded into obscurity if it were not for some of the other appearances in the years that followed.

So here are just some of the theories (some of which are, in reality, just attempts to fix an earliest date, and some of which are highly fanciful!), and my own personal summary appears at the end.

The Choctaw theory
In the American Choctaw Indian language, there is a word okeh, which means "it is so". It is likely (although I can find no hard evidence) that this word was used in some American communities in the early 19th century. There is a report that Andrew Jackson, during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, learned of this Choctaw word, liked it, and used it.

Woodrow Wilson also preferred this etymology, and used okeh when he approved official papers. His use led to this particular form being picked up by Okeh Records, "the name of a series of popular phonograph records" [Mencken, 1936] as well as hot-dog stands, shoe-shining parlours and more.

The Andrew Jackson Libel theory
Some time around 1832, Seba Smith was accused of libel in claiming that Andrew Jackson endorsed a pronouncement written by his literary secretary, Amos Kendell, with OK Amos. The details are not very clear, but it is possible that what was really written was OR, meaning "Order Recorded". However, one newspaper reporting on the matter, presumably some years later, said that the letters OK had been adopted "as a sort of [Democratic] part cry and [were] fastened upon their banners". This does give at least some credence to the idea that OK was at least in familiar use prior to 1840.

The Wolof theory
Like Choctaw Indian, the Wolof language (spoken in Senegal and The Gambia, formerly The Gold Coast) has something like okeh to mean an emphatic "yes" (it's more like waa-key in reality). Wolof has given American English a number of words, perhaps through the African slave trade, such as juke, honky (to mean a white man), hipcat (or hepcat, meaning a jazz enthusiast), jive and even dig (as in "to understand"), although it should be noted that there is nowhere near universal agreement on these! It is likely that okeh appeared in early black American spoken slang.

The Other Languages theories
Yet more languages have similar-sounding words for "yes" or "it is so". Liberian has oke, and Burmese has hoakeh, for instance. Yet again, it is possible that these examples crept into American use in small isolated areas at some time prior to 1839.

The Indian Chief theory
Keokuk was an Indian chief (after whom Keokuk, in Iowa, is named). His admirers sometimes referred to him as "Old Keokuk, he's all right", and the initials OK, came to mean the same thing.

The orl korrect theory
The Internet fashion for condensing phrases into abbreviation certainly not new! The 1830s saw a rise of quirky abbreviations for common phrases, which for some reason seems to have been particularly popular in Boston. ISBD was used to mean "it shall be done", RTBS for "it remains to be seen" and SP for "small potatoes".

It went further, with KY used to mean "no use" (know yuse) and an article in the March 23rd, 1839, edition of the Boston Morning Post, saw this produce OK, short for "all correct" (orl korrect). This is the earliest published appearance of OK that has so far been found.

The Richardson theory
William Richardson recorded his journey from Boston to New Orleans in his 1815 diary. Transcriptions of the diary show "Arrived at Princeton, a handsome little village, o.k. and at Trenton where we dined at 1p.m." - although in some have proposed that this showed the use of the expression in 1815, the original manuscript shows that this was actually part of some alterations that may have been added by Richardson (or someone else), possibly even after 1840 when the term had come into common use. Another possibility is that the writing is of a.h., referring to "a handsome", but there are many objections to this theory.

The 16th century theories
Several claims have been made to have found appearances of OK have in 16th century manuscripts. In one instance Notes & Queries (1911) points out that the will of Thomas Cumberland in 1565 is shown to use OK. But more careful scrutiny shows that this is more likely to have been the initials of the scrivener.

Books published in 1593 and 1596 also have OK included, but apparently as nouns. The text of one (Have with You to Saffron-Walden, by Thomas Nashe, the British author) goes "Martin is Guerra, Brown a brone-bill, & Barrow a wheelbarrow; Ket a knight, H.N. [referring to Henry Nichols] an O.K." As Mencken states in his supplement to The American Language, "the meaning here is unfathomable".

The Old Kinderhook theory
Martin van Buren was standing as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1840. He had acquired the nickname of Old Kinderhook (he was born in Kinderhook, New York). On March 24, 1840 the Democrats opened the OK Club in Grand Street, New York City, based on the initials of van Buren's nickname.

The expression OK soon became the watchword of this club, and in that same year, a Democratic newspaper equated the initials with the strivings of the party to "make all things OK".

The Cockney Orl Korrec theory
The Times, in 1939, had an article reporting that it was of Cockney origin. The author remembered its use as an abbreviation for Orl korrec when he was a boy in the late 19th century. However, this post-dates its first appearance by many years.

The French theory
During the American War of Independence, French sailors made "appointments" with American girls aux quais (meaning when they were berthed at the quayside). This theory was put forward by Britain's Daily Express newspaper in 1940.

The Finish theory
The Fins have a word for correct, and it is oikea. In a 1940 article, someone at the Cleveland Public Library suggested that this may be the origin.

The British Parliament theory
The same source as the Cockney theory (The Times, in 1939) pointed out that some bills going through the House of Lords had to be read and approved by Lords Onslow and Kilbracken, and they each initialed them - producing the combined initials OK.

The Anglo-Saxon theory
Several centuries before its first appearance, Norwegian and Danish sailors used an Anglo-Saxon word, hogfor, which meant ready for sea. This was frequently shortened to HG, which in turn would have been pronounced hag-gay.

The Literary theory
Laurence Sterne was a British author of the 18th century, and in his book A Sentimental Journey, published in 1768, he uses the emphatic French form of yes: O qu-oui. In an anglicised pronunciation (oh-key), the phrase was used by some to express affirmation.

The Schoolmaster theory
In a letter in the Vancouver Sun, in 1935, it was pointed out that early schoolmasters would mark examination papers by adding the Latin Omnis Korrecta, which was sometimes abbreviated to OK.

The Ship-Builder theory
Early ship-builders would mark the timber they prepared, and the first to be laid was marked "OK Number 1", meaning "outer keel No. 1".

The Telegraph theory
Early telegraph operators abbreviated everything, to reduce the amount of work needed. They would use GM for "Good Morning", GA for "Go Ahead" and so on. In 1935, Tatler, in the Observer, suggests that they also used OK. This doesn't stand up at all, as the telegraph post-dated the first written occurrence and it is almost certain, in my view, that they adopted OK rather than inventing it.

The Scottish theory
We've all heard the Scottish expression, och-aye. An author in the Nottingham Journal in 1943 suggests that OK is simply an adaptation of this expression. The Scottish expression derives from och, meaning an exclamation of surprise and aye meaning yes, and has been in existence since perhaps the 16th century.

The Old English theory
In early England, the last harvest loads brought in from the fields were known as hoacky or horkey. It was also the name given to harvest-home, which was the feast which followed the last loads brought in. The satisfactory completion of harvest was therefore known as hoacky, which was soon (at least according to an article in the Daily Telegraph in 1935) shortened to OK.

The Prussian theory
The Times printed a suggestion that the Prussian general, Schliessen (fighting for the American colonies during the War of Independence) was properly given the title Oberst Kommandant. All his orders were initialled OK.

The Greek theory
Probably the earliest suggestion comes from the Greek. The two Greek letters omega and khi appear in a work called Geoponica in 920AD as being a magical incantation (when repeated twice) against fleas!

The Railway theory
Obediah Kelly was an early railway freighter. He is known to have signed bills of lading with his initials, OK, and in railway circles OK came to mean that something had been authorised.

The War-Department (or cracker) theory
During the Civil War, the US War Department bought supplies of crackers from a company called Orrins-Kendall. Their initials appeared on the boxes, and as the crackers were of a particularly high standard, the letters OK became synonymous with "all right". This theory was originally put forward in a publication called Linguist, from the Horace Mann School for Boys in New York, although it has subsequently appeared in a number of other publications.

The multitudinous other theories
During 1840, American politicians used the term frequently, and dreamt up many absurd (and often pointed) origins. Out of Kash, out of kredit, out of klothes, all became identified with van Buren's campaign. And on the floor of the House of Representatives, a congressman from Illinois suggested it meant Orful Kalamity.

Since 1840, many other explanations have been reported. The list above, although long and fanciful, is only the tip of the iceberg!

 

So just where did OK come from?

I will leave the reader to come to his or her own conclusions from the above. However, my own view is that there are bits of several of the above explanations involved.

Unfortunately, etymologists and word-lovers alike seem to have an innate desire to have a single point of origin for words. If they're unable to find that, they like to see clearly defined lines of evolution. My own view is that many words and phrases arise, not from single sources, but through my own theory of "coincidental coinage", where many disparate uses have occurred but which are brought together by some single act.

I would suggest that the Choctaw, and possibly even the other foreign language influences, had resulted in small pockets of America using okeh or something similar. This may have been the case perhaps back as far as the 17th century, but more likely the 18th.

The existence of these examples reinforced the Democrats' use of OK to mean Old Kinderhook, and soon the OK Club became well known. Inevitably, the club would have become well known through the nation's newspapers and, reinforced by folk etymologies, the term became quickly established.

I would therefore argue that there is no single origin of the expression, but it was the OK Club that was responsible for bringing the expression to a wide public arena and which could, in some ways, be said to have at least started the trend which has continued ever since.

Finally
The above notes have been compiled by me on and off over the past few years. Many books and Internet sources reproduce the same arguments, and these have been one foundation, backed up by rather firmer documentary evidence that I have found. But the major source is undoubtedly "The American Language", by HL Mencken, in its various editions and supplements.