List of proposed etymologies of OK
This is a list of etymologies proposed for the word OK or okay. The majority can be easily classified as false etymologies, or possibly folk etymologies. H. L. Mencken, in The American Language, lists serious candidates and "a few of the more picturesque or preposterous". Allen Walker Read surveyed a variety of explanations in a 1964 article titled The Folklore of "O. K." Eric Partridge described O.K. as "an evergreen of the correspondence column."
|Source language||Source||Context||Date first used||Proposer||Date proposed||Notes|
|English||Initials of "oll korrect"||Coined during a fad for comical misspellings and abbreviations||by 1839||by 1839||Documented by Allen Walker Read in 1964, and subsequently widely accepted by dictionaries and etymologists.|
|English||Initials of "Old Kinderhook"||Nickname for Martin Van Buren, from his birthplace in Kinderhook, New York; used as a slogan in the 1840 presidential election||by 1840||editor of the New York New Era||27 May 1840||Reinterpreted by supporters of rival William Henry Harrison as "Out of Kash", "Orful Kalamity", etc. Allen Walker Read suggests this exploited and reinforced the pre-existing "oll korrect" sense.|
|Choctaw||oke, okeh ("it is")||Frontiersman trading with Choctaws borrowed the word directly or via Mobilian Jargon||by 1812||William S. Wyman||August 1885||The form is a verbal suffix "indeed, contrary to your supposition" with modern spelling -okii. Wyman suggested Andrew Jackson had learnt "O.K." from Choctaw and introduced it in the East; others suggest an 18th-century origin.|
|Wolof||waw-kay (waw "yes" + emphatic -kay )||Introduced by West African slaves||by 1815||David Dalby||1969||First proposed in the Hans Wolff Memorial Lecture. Dalby did not specify Wolof, suggesting also Mandinka o ke ("that's it", "certainly"; also "do it"). Liberian Charles Blooah had noted the similarity of Jabo affirmative O'-ke in 1937 without asserting any causality.|
|English||Initials of "oll korrect"||Coined by humorist Josh Billings||1860s or 1870s||"Callisthenes"||1935||Proposed in an advertisement in The Times for Selfridges; "Mr. Selfridge" purportedly remembered having read Billings as a boy.|
|English||Initials of "oll korrect"||Misspelling by Andrew Jackson||c.1830||James Gordon Bennett, Sr.||30 March 1840||Bennett's story, a fabricated propaganda set "a few years ago", is the first attribution of "O.K." to Jackson, although the quality of Jackson's spelling had already been debated during the 1828 presidential election. Charles Godfrey Leland claimed in 1889 to have heard the Jackson-misspelling story in 1835.|
|English||Initials of "oll korrect"||Misspelling by John Jacob Astor||c.1800||Eliezer Edward||1881|||
|English||Initials of "oll korrect"||Popularized by James Pyle based on Andrew Jackson usage||1862||New York Times obituary||1900||James Pyle, inventor of "Pyle's Pearline" purchased by Procter & Gamble in 1914 and renamed "Ivory Snow," placed an ad in the New York Times, October 23, 1862 which refers to James Pyle's O.K. Soap. The New York Times obituary of James Pyle dated January 21, 1900 says "Brought O.K. Into Popularity." The obituary states "He was the first to utilize in advertisements the letters OK in their business significance of all correct. He had the original use of these letters by Stonewall Jackson as an endorsement and was struck by their catchiness. By his extensive employment of them he probably did more than any other person to raise them to the dignity of a popular term and an established business institution."|
|English||Misspelling of "O.R." for "Order Received"||A common mistake in the Western U.S. owing to the similar shapes of the letters R and K.||by 1790||Albigence Waldo Putnam||1859||The 1790 bill of sale "Andrew Jackson, Esq., proved a bill of sale from Hugh McGary to Gasper Mansker for a negro man, which was O.K." is cited in Putnam's History of Middle Tennessee; the assertion that the misspelling is common is added in James Parton's 1860 Life of Andrew Jackson. Woodford Heflin in 1939 established that the 1790 bill did in fact read "O.R." rather than "O.K." |
|German||Initials of ohne Korrektur (without correction)||c. 1900||Guido Carreras||June 30, 1941||In Newsweek|
|English||Initials of "O'Kelly" or "Obediah Kelly"||An early railroad agent or engineer certifying bills or deliveries.||by 1933|||
|German||Initials of "Otto Kaiser"||An industrialist certifying his factory's produce for shipping||by 1953||Reported in 1953 to be widely believed in Germany.|
|Greek||Initials of Ola Kala ( Ὅλα Καλά; "everything is fine")||Used by Greek teachers marking students' work. Prominence of Greek shipping would allow it to be spread by sailors||John Alfred Huybers||1913||In the editor's preface to When I was a boy in Greece, by George Demetrios. Louise Pound supported the theory for a time.|
|Greek||Initials of "Όλα Καλά" meaning Everything is well.||An abbreviation used by Greek immigrants in United States in the late 1800s, when sending telegrams to their relatives in Greece to keep the cost low.||late 19th century|
|Greek||och, och (ὤχ, ὤχ)||A magical incantation against fleas||c.920||W. Snow||26 October 1939||Occurs in the Geoponica, 13.15.9. Suggested in a letter to The Times|
|French||au(x) quai(s) ("to the dock(s)")||Said of cotton bales accepted for export from New Orleans||by 1803||by 1961||Martin R. Wall wrote in 1963 that he had been told this in France "several years ago".|
|French||au(x) quai(s) ("on the quay(s)")||stencilled on Puerto Rican rum specially selected for export||before 1953||A conflation of the au quai and Aux Cayes theories.|
|French||au(x) quai(s) ("on the quay(s)")||In the American Revolutionary War, of French sailors making appointments with American girls||1780s||"Beachcomber"||28 June 1940||In the Daily Express|
|French||Aux Cayes ("from Les Cayes, Haiti")||Les Cayes is a port from which high-quality rum was exported||by 1905|||
|German||Initials of Ober Kommando (High Command)||Used by Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, inspector general of the Continental Army the American Revolutionary War endorsing letters and orders||1780s||23 January 1938||German article reprinted in the Omaha Tribune. Giving a similar story in a letter to The Times in 1939, Sir Anthony Palmer used the name "General Schliessen" and phrase Oberst Kommandant ("colonel in command")|
|English||Initials of "Open Key"||A global telegraph signal meaning "ready to transmit"||"1861 or 1862"||By 1882||The telegraph was not invented until 1844.|
|Finnish||oikea ("correct")||July 1940||In Cleveland Public Library Main Library News Notes|
|English||Initials of Onslow and Kilbracken||On bills reviewed by the Lord Chairman of Committees of the House of Lords (Onslow) and his counsel (Kilbracken)||(after 1932)||John Godley||1939||A jocular proposal by Kilbracken's son, then a student, in a letter to The Times in response to Sir Anthony Palmer's earlier letter.|
|Latin||Initials of Omnis Korrecta ("all correct")||Used by early schoolmasters marking examination papers||1935||In a letter in The Vancouver Sun|
|English||Initials of "outer keel"||Each timber in a wooden-hulled ship would be marked; "O.K. No 1" was the first timber to be laid||John D. Forbes||by 1936|||
|English||hoacky or horkey||Name for the harvest festival in eastern England||Wilfred White||7 March 1935||Suggested in an article in the Daily Telegraph. The phrase "hocky cry" is attested from 1555.|
|English||Initials of Orrin Kendall||Suppliers of high-quality biscuits to the Union War Department during the American Civil War.||(after 1861)||16 December 1910||Article in the Chicago Record Herald.|
|Old English||hogfor ("seaworthy")||Shortened to HG, then pronounced by Norwegian and Danish sailors as "hah gay".||Frank Colby||21 March 1943||Colby reported the theory in his syndicated column "Take My Word For It", but did not endorse it.|
|English||Initials of 0K "Zero Killed"||In military dispatches after a battle or combat mission in which no casualties had been suffered||Leon Godchaux||2 March 1981||In a letter to Time|
|English||Initials of King's Observatory, Kew||Stamped on timepieces and instruments certified by the Observatory||1878||Lorah Harris Graham||1950||In fact, the stamp was "KO" rather than "OK", although the actual symbol comprised an ornate "O" and "K" superimposed, and it was described as "OK" in an 1884 almanac.|
|Occitan||oc ("yes")||Introduced by colonists in French Louisiana||F. R. H. McLellan||14 December 1953||In The Daily Telegraph|
|Scots||och aye ("ah, yes")||Scottish immigrants||"Barbarian"||15 October 1933||In a letter in The Observer|
|Ulster Scots||och aye ("ah, yes")||Brought by Scotch-Irish American immigrants||"18th [or] early 19th" century||Mary Degges||October 1975||A variant of the "och, aye" theory Degges heard in Belfast; the Ulster pronunciation is purportedly closer to "OK" that the Scottish equivalent.|
|French||O qu'oui ("ah, yes")||Emphatic form of "yes"||by 1768||William McDevitt||by 1945||Occurs in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne.|
|English||Initials of "Old Keokuk"||The Sac chief signed treaties with these initials||by 1830||by 1890||Appears in the Century Dictionary in 1890.|
|French||Misspelled initials of au courant||In a poem by "Hans Breitmann", semi-educated German immigrant created by humorist Charles Godfrey Leland||by 1865||1868||Breitmann's poems appeared during the U.S. Civil War; the glossary to the 1868 British edition equates "O.K." with au courant.|
- Mencken, Henry Louis; revised and abridged by Raven I. McDavid, assisted by David W. Maurer (1963). "Chap. IV: The Period of Growth". The American Language (1st abridged ed.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 173–174. ISBN 0-394-40076-3.
- Read, Allen Walker (February 1964). "The Folklore of "O. K."". American Speech (Duke University Press) 39 (1): 5–25. doi:10.2307/453922. JSTOR 453922.
- Partridge, Eric (1984) . A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed.). p. 1373. ISBN 0-7100-9820-0.
- Read, Allen Walker (February 1963). "The First Stage in the History of "O. K."". American Speech (Duke University Press) 38 (1): 5–27. doi:10.2307/453580. JSTOR 453580.
- "OK, adj., int.1, n.2, and adv.". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd (draft) ed.). June 2008.
- Read, Allen Walker (May 1963). "The Second Stage in the History of "O. K."". American Speech (Duke University Press) 38 (2): 83–102. doi:10.2307/453285. JSTOR 453285.
- Cassidy, Frederic G. (Winter 1981). "OK. Is It African?". American Speech (Duke University Press) 56 (4 (W)): 269–273. doi:10.2307/455123. JSTOR 455123.
- "Callisthenes" (March 30, 1935). "The Origin Of "O.K."". The Times (47026). p. 12; col A.
- Read, Allen Walker (October 1963). "Could Andrew Jackson Spell?". American Speech (Duke University Press) 38 (3): 188–195. doi:10.2307/454098. JSTOR 454098.
- Leland, Charles G. (1889). "Breitmann in Politics". The Breitmann ballads. The Lotos Series (New ed.). London: Trübner. p. 137, fn†. OLID OL7148389M.
- Weber, Robert (April 1942). "A Greek O. K.". American Speech (Duke University Press) 17 (2, Part 1): 127–128. JSTOR 486460.
- Snow, W. (October 26, 1939). "Points from Letters — O.K.". The Times (48446). p. 6; col. D.
- Palmer, Sir Anthony (October 28, 1939). "Points from Letters — O.K.". The Times (48448). p. 4; col. C.
- Godley, John (November 2, 1939). "O.K.". The Times (48452). p. 9; col F.
- Mencken, Henry Louis (1947). "Chap. V: The Language Today". The American Language (4th ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 206–207. ISBN 0-394-40076-3.
- "hockey1, hawkey, horkey". Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.).
- Graham, Lorah Harris (1950). Inspirations: Radio Talks and Travel Sketches. Ringgold Bible Club. p. 29.
The Observatory of Kew sets the time for the world. If one's watch is set by that it is marked "O.K." — has been passed by the Observatory Kew. Hence, anything that is correct is "O.K."
- Cloake, John. "6. The work of the Observatory for scientific purposes 1842 - 1980; [b] The Royal Society 1871 - 1899" (PDF). The King's Observatory: Historical Report. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
The standardisation and verification work increased considerably in the 1870s and in 1877 the famous ’KO’ mark was agreed (to be introduced the following year) to brand instruments which had been tested and approved at the Kew Observatory.
- Walker, Malcolm (2011-11-14). History of the Meteorological Office. Cambridge University Press. p. 172, esp. fig.7.5. ISBN 9781139504485. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
- The British Almanac (57th ed.). Stationers' Company. 1884. Companion, Part 1, p.17.
All instruments so verified will leave Kew with a certificate, the Kew Observatory letters OK as a monogram, and a registered number.
- Degges, Mary; Degges, Mary (1975). "The etymology of OK again: 2". American Speech (Duke University Press) 50 (3/4): 334–335. JSTOR 3088024.
- Whitney, William Dwight, ed. (1890). "O.K.". Century Dictionary. Vol. 4, Part 14. New York: Century. p. 4099.
- Leland, Charles Godfrey (1868). "Glossary". Hans Breitmann as a politician (English ed.). London: Trübner & co. p. 71. Retrieved 31 July 2012.