Seriously: 'OK' Began as a Joke in a Newspaper in 1839 Part 1

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: We talk with Allan Metcalf, author of the new book "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word."

RS: And not just the greatest word, in his view.

ALLAN METCALF: "America's most important word. The most successful American export to the rest of the world. And also the embodiment of the American philosophy, the American way of thinking."

AA: "All this, packed into two letters."

ALLAN METCALF: "Yes, that's the beauty of it and that's the economy of it. One of the two aspects of the American view of the world is pragmatism, getting things done. Even if they're not perfect, they're OK. And the nice thing about OK is it doesn't imply that everything is perfect or beautiful or wonderful. In fact, it's a neutral affirmation. When you say 'That's OK' or someone asks you 'How are you?' and you say 'I'm OK,' it doesn't mean that you're in perfect health. But it also doesn't mean that you're sick.

RS: "OK [is] just two letters of the alphabet. Do they stand for something?"

Allan Metcalf

ALLAN METCALF: "Well, they do, as a matter of fact. One of the curious things about OK that makes it require a whole book to tell its story is that it began as a joke. It was on March 23, 1839, in a Boston newspaper, that the newspaper first used 'o.k.' and explained those as an abbreviation for 'all correct.' And, of course, the joke was that 'o' is not the beginning of 'all' and 'k' is not the beginning of 'correct.' So this thing supposedly all correct was not all correct."

AA: "Kind of a sarcastic joke, or what was it meant to be?"

ALLAN METCALF: "Well, it was not so sarcastic. It turned out that at that time in Boston there were all sorts of supposedly humorous abbreviations in the newspapers of that sort. And most of these abbreviations completely disappeared. And you could well imagine that they would, because they were rather stupid.

"But it turns out that in the next year, 1840, in the American presidential election of 1840, a man named Martin Van Buren was running for re-election. He happened to come from Kinderhook, New York, and so somebody thought of calling him 'Old Kinderhook' and then thought of founding clubs supporting him throughout the country, called OK Clubs. OK, Old Kinderhook, is OK, all correct or all right. And that suddenly gave continued life and prominence to OK.

"And then there was a third, very strange thing that happened. During that presidential election year, Martin Van Burne's predecessor as president had been Andrew Jackson, and so there was an attack on Andrew Jackson by an opponent of Van Buren. The attack said that Jackson couldn't spell, so that Jackson would look at a document and if he approved of it, he would write OK on it, meaning it was all correct. Now it turns out that that was a complete hoax.

"It turns out that Andrew Jackson actually could spell pretty well, and the curator of the documents of Andrew Jackson confirms that he never wrote OK on a document. But as a result of that story, within about twenty years people really began marking OK on documents, as they have done ever since. And so it took on a practical, down-to-earth aspect that ultimately developed into the OK we know today."

RS: But Allan Metcalf says the idea that OK began as a joke kept people trying to guess where it really came from.

ALLAN METCALF: "The OK-as-Andrew-Jackson's hoax was the first misleading statement of its origins. And then around the 1880s a professor decided that the true origin was from the Choctaw Indian language, where they had an expression like OK which means 'it is so,' and for various reasons that was proposed as the true explanation for OK. They spelled it 'okeh,' and the only American president ever to have a PhD, Woodrow Wilson, thought that was the correct explanation, so he would mark o-k-e-h on documents."

AA: And, as we will hear next week, there is more to "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word." Allan Metcalf is an English professor at MacMurray College in Illinois and executive secretary of the American Dialect Society.

RS:    And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Transcripts and MP3s of our program are at With Avi Arditti. I'm Rosanne Skirble.