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Where did the word okay come from?

Okay word font typography vector from Rawpixels

The word okay, or O.K. or ok or simply just ‘k is used in several languages apart from English and is said to be one of the most used words in the world.

Where did the word okay come from? There are several theories on when and where this word became part of our vocabulary. Get yourself comfortable and read on…..

Choctaw

The Choctaw language was used by Native Americans and is still in use today, although it is an endangered language with approx only 9,500 speakers in 2015, according to Wikipedia. It is mainly spoken in an American Indian territory in Oklahoma, known as the Choctaw Nation. Their language comes from the Muskogean family of languages (more about this in the next section).”It is so” is expressed in Choctaw as oke or okeh.

Greek

Would it surprise you to learn that Greek is also a Muskogean language? Muskogean is a type of proto language from which other languages are descended. And όλα καλά (óla kalá) is translated as “it is good“.

Scots

There were great numbers of Scottish and Scots-Irish immigrants into North America. There is a theory that the words och aye, meaning oh yes and pronounced oc eye, could have been the origin of our okay.

French

Another idea is that the word okay has its roots in the French speaking cotton growers of Louisiana calling “au quai” when the cotton was ready to be transported from the docks. In this context, au quai could be translated as everything is fine or good to go.

Or….

There are even more possibilities. Some people have claimed okay was descended from one Obadiah Kelly, who stamped his initials on documents for railway cargo. Or it came from Orrin Kendall biscuits in the Civil War. Talking of the Civil War, did the word okay come from an abbreviation that meant nobody was killed, in other words, 0 k ?

It has also been said is that it was invented by Martin Van Buren, whose nickname was Old Kinderhook, and who used the word ok in the presidential election of 1840, with the slogan “Vote for OK“. Sadly it wasn’t okay for Old Kinderhook as he failed to secure the presidency.

Or is okay a phrase from the past used by West Africans in slavery, to signify “everything’s okay“? Although if you were a human slave, then it’s highly probable everything was very much not okay.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Boston

Theories abound and you can pretty much well choose whichever one you like. But nowadays most experts tend to believe that the word okay was born in Boston, in the nineteenth century.

Up to the early 1960’s, there was quite a strong preference for the Choctaw origin of okay. However in 1963 and 64, a guy called Allen Walker Read investigated the source of the word.

What he found was there was a trend in the U.S. in the mid nineteenth century for acronyms along with deliberate, jokey misspellings – such as NG for no go, SP for small potatoes, OW for orl wright and you guessed it, all correct being spelt as orl korrekt…. otherwise OK.

This type of language was probably used in verbal language about ten years or so before it hit the press and written documents. It is now generally agreed that the first recorded instance of okay in writing was in 1839, when Charles Gordon Greene wrote in the Boston Morning Post:

The “Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells,” is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have his “contribution box,” et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.

And Allen Read Walker discovered that there were further occurences of the word okay or o.k., sometimes without a definition, which implies that the population at large knew perfectly well what it meant.

The A-OK sign
Photo by cottonbro CGI on Pexels.com

A-Okay

In the 1960’s the expression A-Okay came into circulation. It was heard in the 50’s but became popular as it was used by NASA in astronaut missions and the moon landing in the 60’s. Apparently it came about as the sound of A was easier to understand through the static than an O sound.

So there you have it, the various stories behind a highly popular word. Do you know any more? If you do, post them in the comments, okay ?

By paulinell

I am an EFL teacher, examiner, Spanish to English translator and English-stuff is my blog on English history, culture and language.

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