definition of O.K.

Is it Ok to Use Ok?

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While writing my capstone (part I of my novel) in 2012, my professor kept reminding me that my characters shouldn’t say “ok.” I didn’t tell her that I had wondered the same thing and that I had already double-checked the derivation of the word. Between my husband’s love of small historical details, our combined degrees in history, and the school’s subscription to OED, it didn’t take long for me to research the history of O.K. But my professor didn’t have a background in history and I was too mentally exhausted to explain why it was O.K. to say “O.K.” in 1906. I changed the word to something boring like “all right” and let it go. I wish I had kept it intact because the history of the word O.K. is pretty entertaining.

My husband and I like to invent bizarre spellings for familiar words or phrases and, according to OED, journalists in the middle of the 19th century felt the same way. Like us, these journalists must have felt that changing the spelling of certain words helped add different voices to their writing. O.K. first appeared in 1839 in the form of a deliberate misspelling (“oll korrect” instead of “all correct”). I can imagine the delight.

“My word, Mrs. Alexander. Look at this. These young people today. They can’t even spell the simple words ‘all correct.’ To think they are employed as writers. ”

“But Mr. Alexander, isn’t that how those dear people in the South pronounce it? Oll korrect? I dare say, it must be too hot down there to speak at a normal speed. Speaking must feel like swallowing molasses.”

“Ah, yes! Very clever!”

If you’re still unsure, watch an episode of Paula Deene and wait for her to say anything.

My old 1967 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology attributes the initials to Old Kinderhook, the nickname of Martin Van Buren (he was born in Kinderhook, NY). His supporters formed the O.K Club in 1840 when O.K. was already in usage. Dave Wilton over at explains that Old Kinderhook and his Democratic friends must have been inspired by “oll korrect,” not the other way around. Van Buren’s campaign probably helped ensure the country’s acceptance of the new word.

definition of O.K.

a page from my copy of the 1967 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology

In terms of America, 1839 was a long time ago. It was part of everyday speech by 1906 and had even made its way into legal documents. In 1906 O.K. still meant “all correct” and not the “meh. whatever” or the “sure” that it means today. When I look at it this way, my characters’ use of O.K. is closer to the original meaning.

Okey dokey, artichokey?

p.s. Okey Dokey didn’t show up until the 1930s. I don’t know when “Okey Dokey, artichokey” appeared, but Hillary Clinton helped make it famous.

“OK, adj., int.1, n.2, and adv.”. OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. (accessed December 05, 2012).

“okey-dokey, int. and adj.”. OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. (accessed December 05, 2012).




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