It Started as a Joke: the True Origin of “OK”

Before LOL, OMG, and BTW, there was OK. It’s probably the most widely recognized English word in the world. Whether you’re in a cosmetic dentistry clinic in the USA, a busy market in Asia, or an extremely loud pub in Europe, you won’t have a problem being understood when you say “OK.” But how did this word become popular? How did it manage to transcend languages, cultures, generations, and borders?

It Started as a Joke

“OK” wasn’t purposefully invented to be the universal word to express agreement or affirmation. It was an editorial joke that went viral even before the word “viral” started to reshape entertainment and marketing in today’s digital age. It all began in the office of the American publication, Boston Morning Post.

The year was 1839. At that time, writers, editors, and other young intellectuals were fond of abbreviating intentionally misspelled phrases. They produced many terms, such as an OW for “oll wright” and KC for “knuff ced.” But only one term made it to the paper: OK for “oll korrect.” It was first printed in a satirical article about grammar in the Boston Morning Post. Soon, other publications picked up on the joke. More writers used the word “OK,” introducing the Boston slang to thousands of readers across the country.

The following year, a re-election campaign by President Martin Van Buren further popularized the term.

Vote for OK

Then-president Van Buren used the slogan “Vote for OK,” a nod to his hometown and nickname, Old Kinderhook. The campaign was highly publicized but didn’t do well as Van Buren’s opponents used the word “OK” against him, saying it stood for “Orful Katastrophe” and “Orful Konspiracy,” instead. So even with attempts to be witty and relatable, Van Buren failed to clinch another shot at the presidency.

Though a complete failure, the entire campaign was a win for “OK.” It helped establish the word “OK” in the American vernacular and, in hindsight, made the public realize “OK” shouldn’t be used for anything other than its true meaning: all correct.

OK in Morse Code, Ads, and More

Cementing its only meaning, “OK” became a part of daily conversation, business transactions, and more. Five years after Van Buren’s campaign, “OK” was the go-to confirmatory dashes and dots for telegraph messages, especially for those who worked on railroad stations. Decades later, “OK” began to show up in advertising both in print and on TV. And because American products were exported to other countries, these advertisements bearing the word “OK” began to appear in different countries. Over the years, the Boston slang has turned into the universal slang for all correct, all good, or everything’s fine.

Language is, indeed, ever-evolving, giving social groups and generations the liberty to make sense of their changing lives, experiences, and cultures more concretely. “OK” might have started as an inside joke among young intellectuals in Boston, but it has become instrumental in the way we communicate matter where we are today. That’s not a bad turnout for just a LOL joke in the 1800s.

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