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The meaning and origin of the expression: Okay


What's the meaning of the word 'Okay'?

Satisfactory - all correct.

What's the origin of the word 'Okay'?

Okay is such a short word and the origin of it causes so much dispute.

It is possibly the phrase with more alternative suggested derivations than any other. The contenders include:

  1. Terms from various languages that sound similar to 'okay' in English; for example:

    from the Scots - 'och aye' (yes, indeed)
    from Choctaw-Chickasaw, 'okah' (it is indeed)
    from Greek, 'ola kala' ( everything is well)
    from Finnish, 'oikea' (correct, exact)
    from Mandingo, 'O ke', (certainly)

  2. A shortened version of 'Oll Korrect', used by President Andrew Jackson when initialing papers
  3. 'Old Kinderhook' - nickname of President Martin van Buren.
  4. 'Aux quais' - the mark put on bales of cotton in Mississippi river ports.
  5. '0 killed' - the report of the night's death toll during the First World War.
  6. 'Orl Korrect' - military reporting indicating troops were in good order.

etc, etc.

Allen Walker ReadDespite there being many rival suggested origins there is actually a well-researched and reliable source for the phrase. In 1963, in American Speech, the celebrated etymologist Professor Allen Walker Read published his extensive research into this phrase. To put his findings into context he explains the craze for the use of abbreviations that flourished in Boston, beginning in summer 1838. He found the earliest recorded use of OK (as opposed to okay, which came slightly later) in the Boston Morning Post, 23rd March 1839, in a story about an odd group known as the Anti-Bell Ringing Society (ABRS). Their reason to be was to have the law relating to the ringing of dinner bells changed. In that article it appears that OK was used as a shortened form of "oll korrect", a comic version of "all correct".

We don't really have to look further for the origin, but people still do.

Sadly, there doesn't seem to be much hope of Read's work being accepted as definitive. Even as early as 1840, which by Read's account is but a few months after the term was coined, there was a dispute about its origin and meaning. In the Lexington Intelligencer, 9th October 1840, we have:

"Perhaps no two letters have ever been made the initials of as many words as O.K... When first used they were said to mean Out of Kash, (cash;) more recently they have been made to stand for Oll Korrect, Oll Koming, Oll Konfirmed, &c. &c."

See also - okey-dokey.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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