No one is exactly sure how the term “okay” came to be, but there are some interesting stories floating about regarding its origin. One story was made popular by an American humorist who states that Andrew Jackson, who was the seventh president of the United States, used the term on official papers as an abbreviation of “OrlKorrect,” which is said to mean that all that is stated on the papers is correct. During a presidential campaign, Jackson’s political enemies published this story to try to make him appear ignorant for trying to create an incorrect phrase. However, what happened behind the scenes is that Jackson would sign the legal papers with the initial OR that stands for “order recorded,” and because they way Jackson wrote his R, some people often mistake it for the letter K. The humorist who popularized the story only wanted to have material for a joke and didn’t mean to belittle Jackson.
Another popular theory on the origin of “OK” involves the Native Americans who may have used the term before the American humorist made it popular. According to the origin story, a Native American chief named Old Keokuk got used to signing papers with his initials, and the initials eventually transformed into the “OK” expression that we know today. On the other hand, the Choctaw Indians created a word even before Keokuk was born. The word was “okeh,” which stands for “It is and in no other way.”
In another speculated origin, it is said that the expression came from an abbreviation fad that occurred in Boston during the 1800s. This fad was documented by Allen Walker Read, who published six articles about it in the American Speech journal from 1963 to 1964. In the articles, Read stated that the Bostonian abbreviation fad started in 1838, and the first expressions created were OFM (“our first men”), SP (“small potatoes”), NG (“no go”), and GT (“gone to Texas”). But the most peculiar abbreviation that arose from the fad was OW, which meant “oll wright.” What’s strange about the abbreviation is that the phrase “oll wright” is made up of two words that have the wrong spelling, as “oll” is supposed to be “all” and “wright” is meant to be “right.” The expression eventually fell out of the common speech, and it was replaced by “OK” that came from another misspelled phrase “ollkorrect.” The expression would then transform into “okay,” although no one is sure how the abbreviation turned into a single word.
The meaning of the expression is believed to have changed during the United States presidential election in 1840, when Martin Van Bruen, a Democratic candidate, used the term to stand for “Old Kinderhook,” his nickname. In the same election, he would send out fliers to voters that have “Vote for OK” written on them, as he believes that the abbreviation is easier to remember than his real name. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that suggests that Bruen’s used of the term led to the evolution of the expression that we currently use, as the meaning for his OK and the people’s OK is different and does not have any connections. In addition, the expression already existed from Andrew Jackson’s time, hence the reason why it cannot be accepted that Bruen’s use of the term was the first.
Believing that the debate on where the expression came from will last forever, Read said in his articles that he is open to reanalyzing his findings in favor of getting closer to the truth in regards to the term’s origins. Unsurprisingly, after the publication of his articles, many historians began debating on the expression’s origins. Some say that it came from the Germans, who used it to shorten the word “ohnekorrektur” or “without correction,” while some speculated that it came from the Greeks, having used the expression to mean “Ola Kala” or “everything is fine.” However, most of these theories are currently regarded as false etymologies, which are false beliefs or stories on the origin of a word. The most believable origin stories were compiled by H.L. Mencken, a journalist and cultural critic, in his book “The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States,” published in 1919. The said book would then be revised four times, with the fourth edition in 1936 being the “corrected, revised, and enlarged” edition. Finding more historical records and studies on the subject, Mencken added two supplementary books in 1945 and 1948. All three books would then be compiled and edited by Raven I. McDavid Jr. in 1963.
Regardless of how it came to be, the term “OK” is widely used today to signify that something is right or good to do. Even in non-English speaking countries like France and Germany, the expression has become a part of their everyday speech.