We Translate On Time

Where Does "OK" Come From?

July 3rd, 2018

OK, let’s make things clear. What is the most popular English word used all over the world? It’s "OK", and as English Oxford Dictionary says, OK can be a noun, an adjective or even a verb. How did it happen that we don’t remember how it started? Allan Metcalf, the author of OK: The Improbable Story of America's greatest word claims that “the almost universal amnesia about the true origins of OK that took place early in the twentieth century. With the source of OK forgotten, each ethnic group and tribe could claim the honor of having ushered it into being from an expression in their native language.".

But how did this all-purpose expression start? Where does it come from? There is no one origin of OK. Taking into consideration all the stories around it, it may be difficult to decide which one is true. In 1964 Allen Walker Read published an article with possible explanations entitled “The Folklore of O.K.”. The texts present possible as well as certainly made up etymologies of the word OK. The first etymology proposed by Read which appears in dictionaries concerns the initials of the misspelled words “oll korrect” appearing in the Boston Morning Post newspaper on 23rd of March 1839. However, one of the earliest etymologies according to Read is the story about a newspaper from East Hampshire that declared that the expression OK comes from the abbreviation of “Oysters Kome”. Yet, Reeds argues that the full context of this story was lost.

There is no doubt that OK can have source not only in English language. Other languages with documented sources of using this expression are: German (initials of “ohne Korrektur”); Greek (initials of “Όλα Καλά”); French (“O qu’oui” as an emphatic form of “yes”); and Latin (initials of “Omnis Korrecta”). Apart from that, William S. Wyman and David Dalby argue that the sources of OK can be found even in more exotic languages, such as Choctaw,spoken by Native American tribes; and Wolof ­– national language of Senegal, Gambia and Mauretania.

What makes OK so useful nowadays? There is no doubt that there are many synonyms of it, which existed before: “fine”, “good”, “excellent”, “perfect” and so on. The main reason for using OK is its neutrality. While saying OK, we don’t need to express our opinion.

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by Gabriela Stępień