In A Nutshell
We say it all the time, but until Allen Walker Read, we had no idea where “OK” came from. There were plenty of claims, from a French village known for its rum all the way to army biscuits and German ranks and titles. But Read determined that it was from a rather unlikely source, first used in the Boston Morning Post to mean “Oll Korrect,” combining two fads of the day: initials and misspellings.
The Whole Bushel
You use it all the time, honestly or sarcastically, probably without even thinking twice about what a powerful statement it really is.
It’s two little letters that give away your complete agreement with whatever’s being discussed. Or, if you say it another way, it’s the exact opposite of that. The origins of “OK” have stumped linguists for years.
For a long time, it was widely assumed it was a US invention, simply because, well, what else would it be, you unpatriotic heathen?
But during World War II, Americans came into pretty close contact with other nations on their soil, and they found it wasn’t just an American thing after all. There were even rumors that it was commonly used by Bedouins roaming the Sahara Desert. Pretty soon, everyone was staking their claim that they were the ones that started it.
The French said it came from Aux Caynes, a town famous for its rum. The Germans said it was a reference to a rank, Oberst Kommandant, and the British said they’d had it centuries before that. Etymologists engaged in what amounted to a linguistic shoving match, with everyone wanting to credit their nation with “OK.”
US scholar Allen Walker Read had already had a long career in tracing the evolution of language when he turned to the “OK” question. He found the first use of the word “Dixie” in a minstrel show and gave Washington Irving credit for coining the phrase “the almighty dollar.” “Podunk,” he found, was a Native American term that was used for swampy lands, and he went on record with a powerful statement, saying, “There is no single, monolithic ‘correct English.’ There is nothing inherent or intrinsic that makes language ‘correct.’ ”
He was fascinated with the way language evolved, and he also discovered the likely origins of “OK.”
He found the absolute earliest use of the term in an issue of the Boston Morning Post dating from 1839. The source was a satirical article on spelling, and the term it was derived from was “Oll Korrect.” The use of initials and bad spelling were both popular at the time.
Other initials, had they caught on, might have been as widespread as “OK” is today. “KY,” for example, was popularly used to mean something was of “no use,” (in its misspelled form of “know yuse”), but it apparently didn’t have the same ring as “OK.”
Read debunked the idea that “OK” came from an army biscuit, or Andrew Jackson’s misspellings, or some obscure, Elizabethan term, but that wasn’t his only contribution to the study of language. His work is a fascinating look at how language and names have evolved over the centuries. (He also discovered that the Rocky Mountains were once called the Northern Andes.)
He even wrote the most ultimately meta of all definitions: the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on the word “dictionary.”