Why do we say 'OK'? It started as an inside joke but blew up when it hit the mainstream.
How a cheesy joke from the 1830s became the most widely spoken word in the world.
You may be surprised to learn that the universally recognized term for neutral affirmation, "OK," has humble linguistic roots. It all started as a cheesy inside joke amongst Boston hipsters. Back in the 1830s, it was cool among Boston’s intellectual class to intentionally misspell abbreviations. They coined "KC" for "’knuff ced," "OW" for "oll wright," "KY" for "know yuse," and “OK” for "oll korrect."
The abbreviations are similar to Cockney rhyming slang, a form of wordplay where phrases are substituted with rhyming words. For example, a phone is known as the “dog and bone” and stairs are called, “apple and pears.”
"OK" found a mainstream audience after it was first used in an article published in the Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839. Soon after, the tongue-in-cheek joke spread to newspapers across the country.
The term was cemented in the American lexicon after President Martin Van Buren used it in his 1840 presidential re-election campaign. Van Buren, known as “Old Kinderhook,” referred to himself as "OK" to show he was “oll korrect.” Unfortunately for Van Buren, the country didn’t agree and he lost his reelection bid.
But the journey to ubiquity didn't stop there for "OK." Early telegraph operators picked up on the term as an easy way to communicate a neutral affirmative, and it spread like wildfire.
From its quirky origins as slang to its current status as a universal affirmative, "OK" has firmly lodged itself in our lexicon. Just think, every time you say, "OK," you're referencing an obscure 19th-century language trend, a presidential campaign and the dawn of telecommunication.