OK is the most successful of all Americanisms. It has invaded hundreds of other languages and been adopted by them as a word. H. L. Mencken claimed that U.S. troops deployed overseas during World War II found it already in use by people around the world, from the Bedouins in the Sahara to the Japanese in the Pacific. It was also the first unscripted word spoken on the surface of the moon, uttered by Buzz Aldrin just after the lunar module touched down.
OK is ubiquitous. Perhaps because it is such a successful word and because it is an abbreviation for something that is not immediately obvious, people want to know where the OK comes from… [I]t has spawned dozens of explanantions.
Despite the term’s success in entrenching itself in American speech, for over a hundred years no one was really sure of the word’s origin. The origin of OK became the Holy Grail of etymology. Finally, in 1963-64 the Galahad of our story, Allen Walker Read of Columbia University uncovered the origin in a series of articles in the journal American Speech.
~ David Wilton, Word Myths, Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends
OK is one of those special words that more or less means assent, acceptance or understanding, at least in print. Of course, when uttered it is a word finely nuanced by intonation and context. It’s ability to carry biting sarcasm, enthusiastic assent, or wearied acceptance, and anything falling between these points, in two quickly stated syllables is its great value to the speaker. That value is so evident that it has carried the word into the far reaches of the world, and beyond, as Wilton points out above.
While my 2 volume World Book Dictionary demonstrates the half dozen or so parts of speech that can be formed from OK, my OED punts on the word, seemingly, shockingly ignoring it. (Note, that my edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is the Compact Edition from the early ’70s; other editions likely include the two-letter word.) Ok, to business! David Wilton (author quoted above) accepts the findings of the famous American etymologist, Allen Walker Read. This is generally regarded as the scientific origin, but some still credit other sources and new discoveries could immediately call the Read theory into question–unlike science there are no discovered “laws” in history (or etymology)!
Allen Walker Read was interested in the origins of the more colorful expressions from English. His work, Classic American Graffiti, was rejected for publication in the U.S. because it was a bit too colorful for the standards of American publishing–even academic publishing. While it would be published in Paris in 1935, it was not published in the States until 1977 under the title mentioned above. (Think about that: Kinsey was able to publish–controversially, I admit–in 1948 and 1953 respectively, but Classic American Graffiti lived out its life in Paris (only 75 copies were printed even there) under its original title: Lexical Evidence from Epigraphy in Western North America: a Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary, until the 1970s.) The hunt for OK’s origins was an entertaining diversion from his professional studies. (Allen Read, Obituary, The Economist)
According to Read’s research, OK is a relic from a fad in 1838-9 Boston newspapers of facetious abbreviations. Similar to internet abbreviations used in texts, chats or social media updates, these ran using common idioms or clichés:
On June 18, 1838, some nine months before OK makes its appearance, the Boston Morning Post included the following: “We jumped in, and were not disappointed either with the carriage, distance, or price. It was O.W.–(all right.)”
Clearly, the editor is abbreviating the phrase as if it were spelled oll wright. New York papers picked up the practice in the summer of 1838, using K.G. for no go, K.Y. for no use, and K.K.N. for commit no nuisance.
~Wilton, Word Myths
In other words, Read traced the initial OK to a bout of word play among Boston editors in 1838-9. Again in the Boston Morning Post, one of the editors wrote: “…perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the [Providence] Journal, and his train-band, would have the ‘contribution box,’ et ceteras, o.k.–all correct–and cause the corks to fly, like sparks upward.” After several instances of reuse in the same paper, the OK “product” traveled south to New York, appearing in the city’s Evening Tattler on September 2. From there it was picked up New Orleans in October and November, before both OK and the abbreviation fad hit Philadelphia. (Ibid.)
It is likely that the tipping point for the word would have flared out, as it did for its short-lived brethren from these editorial games, but NY Democrats formed a club, and eventually a slogan, linking their presidential candidate’s nickname, “Old Kinderhooks,” with the “all correct” OK. Thus, they assured the public that Martin Van Buren was OK for the presidency with the “OK Club” and “I’m with OK” slogan.
There are some other theories, many of the most popular prove to be false–and the majority of these were demonstrated by Read, himself. As far I as I can tell, this is the only theory which suggests both a word origin and a means for the word to take on popular usage. This is relevant to my own way thinking as one who is skeptical about the importance of “firsts” that fail to catch on: see “Some thoughts about ‘Firsts’ in history”; but, etymologists are interested in both the first usage and the spread of a word or expression, so there may be more to add to the story at some point still to come.