OK. From 1830s Joke to Universal Affirmation

There’s a two-letter word that permeates our daily lives, from casual conversations to advanced technology interactions.

We hear it everywhere: OK. It might just be the most recognizable word on the planet.

The Origins of OK

But what does OK actually mean, and where did it come from? The story traces back to a quirky 1830s trend in Boston where young intellectuals enjoyed intentionally misspelling abbreviations.

These coded messages, such as KC for “knuff ced” (enough said), KY for “know yuse” (no use), and OW for “oll wright” (all right), delighted those “in the know.” Among these playful creations, one abbreviation rose to prominence: OK, short for “oll korrect.”

The phrase “all correct” was commonly used to confirm that everything was in order. OK first appeared in print on March 23, 1839, in the Boston Morning Post.

The joke caught on, and soon other newspapers across the country began to spread it.

Political Boost

OK’s popularity got a significant boost during the 1840 presidential campaign of Martin Van Buren, a candidate from Kinderhook, New York.

His supporters formed “OK Clubs” to promote “Old Kinderhook,” branding Van Buren as “oll korrect.” However, political opponents twisted the abbreviation to mean “Orful Konspiracy” or “Orful Katastrophe.”

Despite the mudslinging, the campaign cemented OK in the American vernacular.

OK and the Telegraph

The real game-changer for OK came with the invention of the telegraph in 1844. This device transmitted short messages using electric pulses, with combinations of dots and dashes representing letters of the alphabet.

OK was quick and easy to transmit, and its distinctiveness made it unlikely to be confused with other signals. By 1865, telegraphic manuals declared that no message was considered transmitted until the receiving office acknowledged it with OK.

The Visual Appeal of K

Another reason for OK’s endurance is the visual and phonetic appeal of the letter K. Uncommon at the start of words in English, K gained popularity in advertising and branding at the turn of the century.

Companies used K to catch consumers’ eyes, replacing hard Cs with Ks, as seen in brand names like Krispy Kreme and Kool-Aid. The striking appearance of K made it memorable, helping OK remain prominent.

Misconceptions and Evolution

By the 1890s, OK’s origins were already fading into obscurity, leading to myths about its history. One persistent but incorrect belief is that OK derives from the Choctaw word “okeh,” meaning “so it is.”

While the true Bostonian origins were forgotten, OK had firmly embedded itself in the language.

The Neutral Affirmative

Today, OK is the ultimate “neutral affirmative.” It acknowledges and accepts information without conveying strong feelings.

If you “got home OK,” it means you were unharmed. If your “food was OK,” it was acceptable. OK confirms changes of plans and serves as a reflex in our daily speech.

OK in Modern Times

OK is so ingrained in our communication that we often use it without even noticing. Its simplicity and neutrality have made it a linguistic staple, even making a historic mark as arguably the first word spoken when humans landed on the moon.

Not bad for a corny joke from the 1830s.

Alright then, cut it out!