Lexicon Valley

How OK Became Our One True Universal Colloquialism 

OK has innumerable spellings and at least one hand sign. Not bad for a “low-status” abbreviation meaning “fine.”

Photo by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

Excerpted from Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, by Michael Rosen, out now from Counterpoint.

Is it OK to write OK, Ok, Okay, and ok? And should people who say, “Okily-dokily” be given a custodial sentence?

When zoologists looked at the duck-billed platypus, they had problems. They had their way of classifying animals, but this beast didn’t fit. What’s more, it looked like a hoax. The duck-billed platypus was fine—it’s still fine; it just goes on being a duck-billed platypus. It doesn’t wonder what kind of animal it is.

OK is a duck-billed platypus.

We have no fixed way of writing OK because we don’t know whether it is two initials or a transcription of a non-English word. Either way, it sounds like two letters. It may well have started out in life as an interjection—like uh-huh—but it has now risen to the status of a word. Look at it: One moment, it’s being adjectival and the next, adverbial:

“You’re an OK sort of a guy.” (adjective)
“If you can run OK, you’ll be picked for the team.” (adverb)

“I’ve given him the OK to run.” (noun)
“I’ve okayed him for the race.” (verb)

Unlike the platypus, OK lives everywhere. There are few places left in the world where an “OK!” accompanied by a smile and a nod would be misunderstood. And unlike the platypus, it can acquire appendages: A-OK, okey-dokey, hokie-dokie, and the aforesaid okily-dokily.

It is clearly a popular, useful, and powerful word. It works. It even has its own hand-sign: tip of the first finger on to the tip of the thumb to make an O shape, the other fingers raised, though that seems to be an OK-plus, a better-than-just-OK kind of OK. You might have thought, with all that going for it, that we would be proud that humanity had invented a noise that could do so much for so many. Not so. In many circles, it is a despised little expression, seen as lazy, imprecise, slangy, and—in some countries—an unwelcome Americanism. It’s a low-status word even when used by high-status people. If a prime minister or president wants to sound informal, he or she will use OK. In a formal setting, as in a news broadcast, it won’t make the grade. You’ll be told to not use it in a job application or in an essay on the causes of the First World War.

There isn’t a clear answer why OK hasn’t been allowed into the academy that is formal prose writing. I suspect it’s a cluster of connotations to do with its origins and its sound. I’ll get on to the theories of its precise origins in a moment, but whatever these are, OK took up a regular posting in the informal speech of non-posh Americans just as “gee!” and “wow!” have. Once a word is situated in a place like that, it’s hard for it to fight its way into formal writing. Whatever its virtues, standard English is also a code that signals that the writer has had a particular kind of education. A rule like “Don’t use ‘OK’ in your essays” does this job.

I think something else is involved: the sound. Perhaps we see some initialed expressions as not being the full or real thing—OK for note-taking and chat but not for proper writing. No matter what its true origins are, we hear OK as two letters and that’s part of how we think of it. The irony here would be that OK may be a “loan word,” “borrowed” from another language and kept, and fully entitled to keep its place alongside robots, verandahs, and culottes.

My first go at the etymology of OK was when I was about 6. I knew then that the word OK came from sauce bottles. But however much I would like my bottle of OK Sauce to be the explanation of the word’s origins, wishing it won’t make it so. There is a whole bunch of contenders for the real origin: from a Greek expression, “ola kala” (meaning “it’s good”); as a loan word from the American Choctaw nation, “oke” or “okeh” (meaning “it’s so”); a French dockers’ expression, “au quai” (meaning “it’s all right to send to the quay”); another French dockers’ expression, “aux Cayes” (meaning “to or at Cayes,” a place renowned for good rum); a railroad freight agent, Obadiah Kelly, who put his initials on documents he had approved; an expression meaning “all right” circulating in the languages of West African peoples; an anglicization of the Scots expression “och aye”; and finally—the one I was told when I wondered about brown sauce labelling—that it was a mock initializing of the misspelled “orl korrekt” or “oll korrect,” something that young swells from Boston liked to do in the 1830s.

Its first written, testified use is by the Democrats during the presidential election of 1840. Their candidate, Martin Van Buren, had the nickname of “Old Kinderhook” (after his birthplace in New York state), and his supporters called themselves the “OK Club.” This may have helped the spread of the expression, but it didn’t help Martin Van Buren. He lost the election.

I have another suggestion: It comes from all these sources. The theory I’m working to here is that some expressions and words don’t come from one source alone. As one example amongst thousands, the expression “the full monty” can claim several origins. Perhaps what happens is that a word or expression starting out in one place chimes with the same or a similar one in another, and together they snowball into widespread usage. One of the main causes of language change is that people hear something that sounds like something that they already say and they add that to their vocabulary or “linguistic repertoire.” Colloquial words often catch on when you think that saying a given word will make you sound good to others when you say it.

In the case of OK, the main cause of its spreading has been “mateyness.” If I say it, I will sound more matey, more affable, more “with you” than indifferent or hostile to you. One of the key times and places to indicate mateyness is when peoples who perceive each other as different meet up and wish to be friendly. A shorthand way of saying “things are fine” is very useful. Saying good in someone else’s language is an excellent way of showing friendliness. My first visits to France as a teenager were constantly sprinkled with me saying bon. In the list of possible contenders for OK’s origin, there seem to be thousands, if not millions, of small encounters in which saying OK would have done that job very well. If I’m right, OK would be a symbol of “interculturalism,” the way peoples of different origins share culture.

Even so, let’s hear it for the Boston wags. According to Allen Walker Read, there was a fad in the 1830s for abbreviations of expressions said in local accents and dialects: “KY” for “know yuse,” “NS” for “nuff said,” “OW” for “oll wright,” and even initials for misspellings: “KG,” for “know go” and “NC” for “nuff ced.” It sounded funny and cool to say OK for “orl korrekt.” As it happens, it seems as if plenty of peoples were saying something like OK well before that, but it would be the encounters between these peoples, along with the snappy OK sign, which made it stick.

Copyright © 2015 by Michael Rosen from Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.