‘OK’ (or ‘okay’) is one of the most commonly-used words in the English language, although no-one knows where it really came from. Its nuances are subtle but diverse, and yet the entire English-speaking world - and much more besides – has an innate understanding of them. As an adjective it means ‘adequate’ or ‘acceptable’ (‘these pants are okay to wear again’), but can also mean ‘mediocre’ (‘the new Die Hard movie is okay, I suppose’). As a noun or verb it denotes assent (‘your wife okayed that shirt, did she?’). As an interjection, it can signify agreement or compliance (‘okay, last-minute trip to Tijuana sounds good’). It can also be used to seek confirmation – ‘is this Bananaman tattoo okay?’. And, naturally, ‘okay’, ‘OK’ and ‘O.K.’ all mean approval, acknowledgement, acceptance and agreement. OK, let’s go. It’s OK, your mum okayed it. Everything is A-OK.
So, where do people think it came from? Well, there are a number of options. For instance…
This sounds stupid, but is widely accepted by many dictionaries as being the source. Even so, there are numerous different accounts of where ‘oll korrect’ came from. Some claim that it sat with soap man James Pyle, who took out an ad in the New York Times for O.K. Soap in 1862 – his obituary in 1900 credited his relentless use of the initials as being what pushed them into the mainstream consciousness; however it was apparently the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson who coined it, with Pyle merely popularising it… and it was around 1830 that Jackson reportedly started saying ‘OK’, his legendarily poor spelling leading him to believe that ‘OK’ stood for ‘all correct’.
Other sources state, in a less convoluted manner, that there was a fad for comical misspellings in the 1830s, and ‘oll korrect’/‘OK’ grew organically during that time.
This is a pretty plausible explanation. Those with a thick Scottish accent, as you’re probably aware by stereotype if nothing else, have been known to say ‘och, aye’ to mean ‘oh, yes’. The Ulster pronunciation is pretty close to the modern ‘okay’ too. So some linguists place the genesis of it with Scotch-Irish American immigrants at various dates between 1700 (or before) and the mid-1800s.
French for ‘on the quays’ or ‘to the docks’, this version is said to originate variously between around 1780 and 1820, referring to cotton bales that were accepted for export from New Orleans, or stencilled on Puerto Rican rum cases that had been approved for export. Or in the American Revolutionary War, referring to the, er, appointments made by French sailors with American girls. A variant of this is ‘Aux Cayes’, referring to the Haitian seaport of Les Cayes (which, incidentally, is spelled ‘Okay’ in Haitian Creole) – again talking about markings on export rum.
A rather more likely-sounding version of ‘oll korrect’, omnis korrecta is Latin for ‘all correct’. Schoolmasters would apparently mark their pupils’ work with ‘OK’ in the mid- to late-nineteenth century if they’d got everything right.
Martin van Buren, the 8th President of the United States, was born in a place named Kinderhook, New York. In the 1840 presidential election, the nickname ‘Old Kinderhook’ was used in his campaign, the shortened ‘O.K.’ supposedly passing into the common lexicon as something solid and trustworthy. (Opposing wags reinterpreted his ‘O.K.’ as ‘Out of Kash’, ‘Orful Kalamity’, and other ribald put-downs.)
Mobilian Jargon was a pidgin trade language used between frontiersmen and Native Americans along the Gulf of Mexico. It was in common use from the early 1700s right up to the 1950s as a means of facilitating trade between natives and European settlers. ‘Oke’ (or ‘okeh’) is a Choctaw word meaning ‘it is’. (In a more modern context, it works as a suffix, spelt ‘-okii’.) It’s been suggested that Stonewall Jackson originally adopted ‘oke’ from the Choctaws.
In the 1960s, it was suggested that early 19th-century West African slaves may have introduced ‘waw-kay’ to the American Deep South – ‘waw’ meaning yes, ‘-kay’ used for emphasis, supposedly coming from the Wolof language of Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania.
The same theory also cites the Mandinka language’s ‘o ke’ (meaning ‘certainly’ or ‘do it’).
Bit tenuous, this one. Apparently ‘O.K.’ was a common misspelling of ‘O.R.’ for ‘order received’ in the late 18th- and early 19th-century, owing to the similar shapes of the letters R and K. Not convinced by that, but a fair few people claim that as the source of it all.
Ohne korrektur/Otto Kaiser
Two suggestions that originate from the German language. ‘Ohne korrektur’ means ‘without correction’, and Otto Kaiser was an industrialist who’d stamp ‘O.K.’ on his goods when they were ready for shipping. The former feels like a retronym, while the latter doesn’t feel significant enough to create a global linguistic phenomenon. But again, many people suggest these as the origins of ‘OK’.
This is a Russian phrase - очень хорошо – meaning ‘very well’. Now, this only works if you take the phrase from a later transcription to English rather than using the traditional Russian phrase, as ‘khorosho’ begins with Kha (X), not Ka (K). So this should really give us the phrase ‘OX’. Next!
Some suggest that ‘O.K.’ stands for O’Kelly, or alternatively Obediah Kelly, who was an early railroad agent. It’s not clear why they think this is relevant. Moving on…
This is a Greek phrase - Όλα Καλά – which means ‘everything is fine’. Supposedly used by Greek teachers in marking their pupils’ work, while the global ubiquity of Greek sailors would allow it to spread. Also an abbreviation reportedly used by Greek immigrants in the US when sending telegrams home. Pretty much as credible as the ‘omnis korrecta’ theory.
(Another unrelated Greek one: ‘och’ was an Ancient Greek incantation against fleas.)
‘O.K.’ was broadly used in the 1780s and ’90s as a shortening of ‘Ober Kommando’, or ‘High Command’. This stemmed from Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, Inspector General of the Continental Army, stamping ‘O.K.’ all over his correspondence.
This is a global telegraph signal meaning ‘ready to transmit’. Of course, the telegraph wasn’t invented until 1844, which doesn’t explain the earlier uses of ‘O.K.’…
This is Finnish for ‘correct’. The crux of this theory is how much you believe that the Finnish language might have influenced other tongues so widely. Seems unlikely.
Another nautical one. Timber in a wooden-hulled boat would be marked for seaworthiness; ‘O.K. no.1’ would be the first to be laid, and so forth.
Smacks of desperation, this one. The sixteenth-century name for a harvest festival in the east of England? Oh, come on…
This was the name of a supplier of biscuits to the Union War Department during the American Civil War. The O.K. biscuits were of high quality, so things that were good became known as ‘O.K.’. Hmmm.
The Old English word for ‘seaworthy’, shortened to ‘H.G.’, which was then pronounced by Norwegian and Danish sailors as ‘hah gay’, which became ‘oh kay’. Nope, not buying that.
Note that that’s a zero, not a letter ‘o’. ‘0K’ stands for ‘zero killed’, a contraction traditionally used in military despatches when talking about a conflict in which no fatalities occurred.
From the French, it’s an emphatic way of saying yes. (‘Oh, but yes!’) Feasible? Maybe.
There are various other suggestions, and word geeks have been arguing for generations about why we all say ‘okay’. However, the most likely explanation is probably that there’s an element of truth in a number of these theories, and it’s not just their prevalence in little pockets around the world but their recognisability to others that’s helped it to achieve its modern ubiquity. And that’s probably as good an answer as you’re going to get, OK?