Today In History: 'O.K.' Enters The English Language

Real History |

The initials "O.K." are so frequently used that it's hard to imagine a period of time when people wouldn't understand what you meant by it. But O.K. is actually a fairly new linguistic invention. Today in 1839, the phrase entered the public vernacular when it was published for the first time in The Boston Morning Post.

The phrase was originally an abbreviation of the phrase "oll korrect," a common misspelling of "all correct." Eventually OK would become heavily used by virtually everyone.

During that time, it was trendy among younger people to deliberately misspell common words or phrases, and then abbreviate them in conversation as a kind of hip secret code. For example, "no use" was misspelled as "know yuse" and abbreviated "KY." And "all right" was misspelled "oll wright" and abbreviated "OW." OK arose from this same strange culture.

OK was first printed in The Boston Morning Post as a joke. Politicians picked up on it and incorporated the abbreviation into their speeches. Martin Van Buren, when he was up for reelection, had his political lackeys and enforcers form a bully coalition under the name "the O.K. Club," a reference to Van Buren's "Old Kinderhook" nickname. The Whig Party also used OK to smear Andrew Jackson who was closely associated with Van Buren. The Whigs accused Jackson of inventing "OK" as a save when he misspelled "all correct."

For a long time, there was confusion over where, exactly, the phrase came from. One account held that it was a reference to a kind of biscuit given to soldiers, the Orrin Kendall. Another story claimed that "OK" referred to the Haitian port Aux Cayes. Yet another historical narrative said that it was an abbreviation of Old Keokuk, a famous Choctaw chief. But a linguist named Allen Walker Read, professor of English at Columbia University, correctly traced the etymology of the abbreviation back to the Boston Morning Post story that was published on this day.

New words enter official usage all the time, as logged by the Oxford English Dictionary. Recent entries include "card reader," "clickbait," "moobs," "upspeak" and "slacktivism." Language is ever-evolving, much to the chagrin of snobs. Who knows what words and phrases that are now being used as slang that will eventually become common staples of everyday speech? Hopefully we're still using words a hundred years from now, or even twenty. Losing our faculty for written language would be not-OK.

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