Have you ever wondered where ‘OK’, the most widely used word in the world, comes from? Many origins have been suggested, for example the Louisiana French ‘au quai’, meaning ‘to the dock’, said of cotton that had been approved for loading on a ship, or the German ‘alles korrekt’, ‘all accurate’, or even the Greek ‘olla kalla’, ‘all good’. Some argue that it evolved from ‘okeh’, a Choctaw affirmative expression in the native American tribe language. There are also theories that it was derived from the Scottish expression ‘och aye’, denoting approval.

465 Ok b Istock


However, in the 1960s American linguist Allen Walker Read, an English professor at Columbia University, uncovered OK’s true origins: the expression is literally a joke dating back to 1839, when the abbreviation “o.k.” first appeared in print in a humorous article in the Boston Morning Post, next to the words “all correct”. Much like modern-day shortcuts such as LOL and OMG, an abbreviation fad flourished in 19th-century America and, in an attempt at humour, cultivated elites intentionally abbreviated words and misspelled them for slang; so, it wasn’t strange that ‘all correct’ was abbreviated to ‘o.k.’.

Message received

Abbreviations and misspellings are usually only popular for a short period of time. However, ‘OK’ stuck around thanks to the invention of the telegraph. By the 1870s it had become the standard way for early telegraph operators to acknowledge that a message had been received.

‘OK’ soon started to appear in everyday speech, although it was usually only used in business contexts or in fictional dialogues to suggest that a character was uneducated.

In the 20th century, ‘OK’ was no longer considered slang and had steadily made its way into the everyday speech of Americans. It soon found its place in many foreign languages too. It was allegedly the first word spoken on the Moon when, as the lander touched down, Buzz Aldrin exclaimed: “OK, contact light”. With the advent of computers, ‘OK’ became the common label for confirming actions, and the emoji hand symbol (showing the index finger and thumb touching to make a circle) is today one of the most universally used.

Why so popular?

Whether you spell it all in upper case ‘OK’, or ‘O.K.’, all in lower case ‘okay’ or ‘ok’, or a combination of the two, ‘Ok’,  (even though the generally accepted form is ‘OK’, upper case, with no full stops), there is no doubt that it is the most widespread English word on the planet. But how did it conquer the world? Maybe because it’s so... useful! It’s just two letters, it’s easy for most non-English speakers to pronounce and to write, it can fill almost any gap in conversation, it’s a verbal thumbs-up to express agreement and it’s a universally good way to say that something is alright, or not bad. Obviously, there are similar words, like ‘yes’, ‘fine’, ‘excellent’, ‘all right’, ‘satisfactory’, ‘good’ but they are endowed with a stronger sense of affirmation and emotion. ‘OK’, on the other hand, is the weakest form expressing agreement, somehow just one step above ‘no’. OK?