Seriously: 'OK' Began as a Joke in a Newspaper in Boston in 1839 Part 2

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

RS: Last week, Allan Metcalf explained how OK began as a joke on March 23, 1839. That was the day a Boston newspaper first used it as a humorous, misspelled abbreviation for "all correct." Other factors later helped propel OK into wider use.

AA: But not everyone thought OK was OK, says Allan Metcalf.

ALLAN METCALF: "Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, it was well-known, but there were places where it was not used. And one of them was by writers of fiction. All the good writers seemed to avoid OK, like Mark Twain, who certainly used slang, and Brett Hart. Both of them could easily have used OK. They must have known it. But they avoided it."

AA: "What did they use in its place?"

ALLAN METCALF: "Just something like 'all right' or 'that will do' or whatever else. And then there's a very interesting case. Louisa May Alcott wrote a book called 'Little Women' about twenty years after OK was invented. And, in it, there's one OK in a letter from one of the girls to her sisters.

"And then that was revised for a second edition, and OK was removed and 'cozy' was put in instead. So everything is 'cozy' instead of everything is 'OK.' So there must have been some sense that OK was too silly a term to use even in fiction."

RS: "How does OK in our vocabulary represent who we are as Americans?"

ALLAN METCALF: "One way that it represents who we are is that it represents the pragmatic sense of getting it done. Maybe not getting it done perfectly, but it's OK. But the other way began with a book published in 1967 by a guy named Thomas Harris. The book is called 'I'm OK -- You're OK.' And the book happens to be about a kind of psychology known as transactional analysis.

"Now most of us have either forgotten or never heard about transactional analysis. But that brilliant statement, 'I'm OK -- You're OK,' which happens also to be the only famous quotation ever involving OK, is one that has seeped into our American consciousness.

"And I think nowadays we as a people are much more tolerant than we used to be, partly because 'I'm OK' -- that means I can do what I want. 'You're OK' -- you can do what you want. Maybe we aren't doing the same thing, but that's OK."

RS: "And speaking of OK, do you think OK also has not only a past longevity, but a future?"

ALLAN METCALF: "It's hard to imagine a world without OK, and I mean not just America without OK but any other part of the world. I've received a few anecdotes about OK once my book was published. It was used in Polish. That's one anecdote. Another in French.

"I'd be very pleased if your listeners would send me any stories about how OK is used in their countries. I'm thinking of a sequel called 'OK Around the World.'"

RS: "We'll try to help you on that."

AA: "Speaking of these other languages, you mention that there are similar terms in other languages. Did any of those come before OK, or have they all emerged since then?"

ALLAN METCALF: "The Greek language has an expression something like 'olla kalla' which means 'all good,' which has been around in Greek for a couple of thousand years. And so when OK was imported-exported to Greece, the Greeks thought 'Oh, that's an abbreviation of one of our expressions.' But there's absolutely no connection leading from Greece to the American Boston in 1839."

AA: "And there are so many ways it's written: O.K., OK without periods, o-k-a-y. Is there one you prefer?"

ALLAN METCALF: "Well, for my book, since I wanted to emphasize OK, I used capital O, capital K without periods. But those other spellings that you mention are also legitimate. The original OK was 'o.k.' And if you want to make it look more like an ordinary word, you spell it 'okay.'"

RS:    Allan Metcalf is the author of "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word."

AA:    Let us know if you use OK in your language.

RS:    OK?

AA:    Go to, click on the Contact Us link and tell us your story. We'll forward it to Allan Metcalf.

RS:    That's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I’m Rosanne Skirble.