Where Did O.K. Come From?

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For some reason I’ve had a long time interest in fads, having written about social crazes on more than one occasion. So I found it fascinating when I stumbled across this explanation that O.K came about as the result of a fad. The fad that swept people away was silly abbreviations.

According to Cecil Adams’ The Straight Dope:

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The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 and spread to New York and New Orleans in 1839. The Boston newspapers began referring satirically to the local swells as OFM, “our first men,” and used expressions like NG, “no go,” GT, “gone to Texas,” and SP, “small potatoes.” Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of OK was OW, “oll wright,” and there was also KY, “know yuse,” KG, “know go,” and NS, “nuff said.”

According to Adams, the reason O.K. had more stickiness than its peers was that it was borrowed and used extensively in Martin Van Buren’s 1840 presidential campaign.

It didn’t really enter the language at large, however, until 1840. That’s when Democratic supporters of Martin Van Buren adopted it as the name of their political club, giving OK a double meaning. (“Old Kinderhook” was a native of Kinderhook, New York.)

OK became the war cry of Tammany hooligans in New York while beating up their opponents. It was mentioned in newspaper stories around the country.

Van Buren’s opponents tried to turn the phrase against him, saying that it had originated with Van Buren’s allegedly illiterate predecessor, Andrew Jackson, a story that has survived to this day. They also devoted considerable energy to coming up with unflattering interpretations, e.g., “Out of Kash, Out of Kredit, and Out of Klothes.”

Newspaper editors and publicists around the country delighted in coming up with even sillier interpretations — Oll Killed, Orfully Konfused, Often Kontradicts, etc. — so that by the time the campaign was over the expression had taken firm root nationwide.

If you find this explanation unsatisfactory, Adams does list a half dozen or more alternatives that have been proposed over the years and you can go check them out. But as far as I’m concerned, this one is quite O.K.

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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