List of proposed etymologies of OK

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This is a list of etymologies proposed for the word OK or okay. The majority can be easily classified as false etymologies, or possibly folk etymologies.H. L. Mencken, in The American Language, lists serious candidates and “a few of the more picturesque or preposterous”.[1] Allen Walker Readsurveyed a variety of explanations in a 1964 article titled The Folklore of “O. K.”[2] Eric Partridge described O.K. as “an evergreen of the correspondence column.”[3]
Source language Source Context Date first used Proposer Date proposed Notes
English Initials of “oll korrect” Coined during a fad for comical misspellings and abbreviations by 1839 by 1839 Documented by Allen Walker Read in 1964,[4] and subsequently widely accepted by dictionaries[5] and etymologists.
English Initials of “Old Kinderhook” Nickname forMartin Van Buren, from his birthplace inKinderhook, New York; used as a slogan in the1840 presidential election by 1840 editor of the New YorkNew Era 27 May 1840 Reinterpreted by supporters of rival William Henry Harrison as “Out of Kash”, “Orful Kalamity”, etc. Allen Walker Read suggests this exploited and reinforced the pre-existing “oll korrect” sense.[6]
Choctaw okeokeh(“it is”) Frontiersmantrading withChoctawsborrowed the word directly or via Mobilian Jargon by 1812 William S. Wyman August 1885 The form is a verbal suffix “indeed, contrary to your supposition” with modern spelling -okii.[5] Wyman suggested Andrew Jackson had learnt “O.K.” from Choctaw and introduced it in the East; others suggest an 18th-century origin.[2]
Wolof waw-kay(waw “yes” + emphatic-kay ) Introduced byWest African slaves by 1815 David Dalby 1969 First proposed in the Hans Wolff Memorial Lecture.[7] Dalby did not specify Wolof, suggesting also Mandinka o ke (“that’s it”, “certainly”; also “do it”).[7] Liberian Charles Blooah had noted the similarity of Jabo affirmative O’-ke in 1937 without asserting any causality.[2]
English Initials of “oll korrect” Coined by humorist Josh Billings 1860s or 1870s “Callisthenes” 1935 Proposed in an advertisement in The Times for Selfridges; “Mr. Selfridge” purportedly remembered having read Billings as a boy.[8]
English Initials of “oll korrect” Misspelling byAndrew Jackson c.1830 James Gordon Bennett, Sr. 30 March 1840 Bennett’s story, a fabricated propaganda set “a few years ago”, is the first attribution of “O.K.” to Jackson,[2] although the quality of Jackson’s spelling had already been debated during the 1828 presidential election.[9] Charles Godfrey Leland claimed in 1889 to have heard the Jackson-misspelling story in 1835.[10]
English Initials of “oll korrect” Misspelling byJohn Jacob Astor c.1800 Eliezer Edward 1881 [2]
English Initials of “oll korrect” Popularized by James Pyle based on Andrew Jackson usage 1862 New York Timesobituary 1900 James Pyle, inventor of “Pyle’s Pearline” purchased by Procter & Gamble in 1914 and renamed “Ivory Snow,” placed an ad in the New York Times, October 23, 1862 which refers to James Pyle’s O.K. Soap. The New York Times obituary of James Pyle dated January 21, 1900 says “Brought O.K. Into Popularity.” The obituary states “He was the first to utilize in advertisements the letters OK in their business significance of all correct. He had the original use of these letters by Stonewall Jackson as an endorsement and was struck by their catchiness. By his extensive employment of them he probably did more than any other person to raise them to the dignity of a popular term and an established business institution.”
English Misspelling of “O.R.” for “Order Received” A common mistake in the Western U.S. owing to the similar shapes of the letters R and K. by 1790 Albigence Waldo Putnam 1859 The 1790 bill of sale “Andrew Jackson, Esq., proved a bill of sale from Hugh McGary to Gasper Mansker for a negro man, which was O.K.” is cited in Putnam’s History of Middle Tennessee; the assertion that the misspelling is common is added in James Parton‘s 1860 Life of Andrew Jackson. Woodford Heflin in 1939 established that the 1790 bill did in fact read “O.R.” rather than “O.K.” [2]
German Initials ofohne Korrektur(without correction) c. 1900 Guido Carreras June 30, 1941 In Newsweek[2]
Russian Initials ofOchen Khorosho(Очень Хорошо; “Very Well”) William Courson [unknown] The word Khorosho begins with Kha (Х), not Ka (К). Therefore, this proposed etymology only makes sense if taken from a later transcription to English, and not directly from the original Russian phrase. Kha is a voiceless velar fricative, typically transcribed from Russian as “kh”, but sometimes as “h” or even “x” to avoid a repeated and ambiguous use of “k”. If either of these alternative transcriptions would be intended, or if the proposed etymology were based purely on the original Russian phrase, then the resulting abbreviation could only be either OH or OX.
English Initials of “O’Kelly” or “Obediah Kelly” An early railroadagent or engineer certifying bills or deliveries. by 1933 [2]
German Initials of “Otto Kaiser” An industrialist certifying his factory’s produce for shipping by 1953 Reported in 1953 to be widely believed in Germany.[2]
Greek Initials ofOla Kala ( Ὅλα Καλά; “everything is fine”) Used by Greek teachers marking students’ work. Prominence ofGreek shippingwould allow it to be spread by sailors John Alfred Huybers 1913 In the editor’s preface to When I was a boy in Greece, by George Demetrios.[2][11] Louise Pound supported the theory for a time.[2]
Greek Initials of “Όλα Καλά” meaning Everything is well. An abbreviation used by Greek immigrants in United States in the late 1800s, when sending telegrams to their relatives in Greece to keep the cost low. late 19th century
Greek och, och(ὤχ, ὤχ) A magical incantation against fleas c.920 W. Snow 26 October 1939 Occurs in the Geoponica, 13.15.9. Suggested in a letter toThe Times[1][12]
French au(x) quai(s) (“to the dock(s)”) Said of cotton bales accepted for export fromNew Orleans by 1803 by 1961 Martin R. Wall wrote in 1963 that he had been told this in France “several years ago”.[2]
French au(x) quai(s) (“on the quay(s)”) stencilled onPuerto Rican rumspecially selected for export before 1953 A conflation of the au quai and Aux Cayes theories.[2]
French au(x) quai(s) (“on the quay(s)”) In the American Revolutionary War, of French sailors making appointments with American girls 1780s “Beachcomber” 28 June 1940 In the Daily Express[1]
French Aux Cayes(Haitianport) source of the high-quality rum by 1905 [2]
German Initials ofOber Kommando(High Command) Used by Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben,inspector generalof the Continental Army theAmerican Revolutionary War endorsing letters and orders 1780s 23 January 1938 German article reprinted in the Omaha Tribune.[1] Giving a similar story in a letter to The Times in 1939, Sir Anthony Palmer used the name “General Schliessen” and phraseOberst Kommandant (“colonel in command”)[1][2][13]
English Initials of “Open Key” A globaltelegraph signal meaning “ready to transmit” “1861 or 1862” By 1882[2] The telegraph was not invented until 1844.
Finnish oikea(“correct”) July 1940 In Cleveland Public Library Main Library News Notes[1]
English Initials ofOnslow andKilbracken On bills reviewed by the Lord Chairman of Committees of the House of Lords (Onslow) and his counsel (Kilbracken) (after 1932) John Godley 1939 A jocular proposal by Kilbracken’s son, then a student, in a letter to The Times in response to Sir Anthony Palmer’s earlier letter.[1][14]
Latin Initials ofOmnis Korrecta(“all correct”) Used by early schoolmasters marking examination papers 1935 In a letter in The Vancouver Sun[2]
English Initials of “outer keel Each timber in a wooden-hulledship would be marked; “O.K. No 1” was the first timber to be laid John D. Forbes by 1936 [15]
English hoacky orhorkey Name for theharvest festival in eastern England Wilfred White 7 March 1935 Suggested in an article in the Daily Telegraph.[2] The phrase “hocky cry” is attested from 1555.[16]
English Initials of Orrin Kendall Suppliers of high-quality biscuits to the Union War Departmentduring theAmerican Civil War. (after 1861) 16 December 1910 Article in the Chicago Record Herald.[2]
Old English hogfor(“seaworthy”) Shortened to HG, then pronounced by Norwegian and Danish sailors as “hah gay”. Frank Colby 21 March 1943 Colby reported the theory in his syndicated column “Take My Word For It”, but did not endorse it.[1]
English Initials of 0K “Zero Killed” In military dispatches after a battle or combat mission in which no casualties had been suffered Leon Godchaux 2 March 1981 In a letter to Time
Occitan oc (“yes”) Introduced by colonists inFrench Louisiana F. R. H. McLellan 14 December 1953 In The Daily Telegraph[2]
Scots och aye(“ah, yes”) Scottish immigrants “Barbarian” 15 October 1933 In a letter in The Observer[2]
Ulster Scots och aye(“ah, yes”) Brought byScotch-Irish American immigrants “18th [or] early 19th” century Mary Degges October 1975 A variant of the “och, aye” theory Degges heard in Belfast; the Ulster pronunciation is purportedly closer to “OK” that the Scottish equivalent.[17]
French O qu’oui(“ah, yes”) Emphatic form of “yes” by 1768 William McDevitt[1] by 1945 Occurs in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy byLaurence Sterne.
English Initials of “OldKeokuk The Sac chief signed treaties with these initials by 1830 by 1890 Appears in the Century Dictionary in 1890.[2]
French Misspelled initials of au courant In a poem by “Hans Breitmann”, semi-educated German immigrant created by humorist Charles Godfrey Leland by 1865 1868 Breitmann’s poems appeared during the U.S. Civil War; the glossary to the 1868 British edition equates “O.K.” with au courant.[18]


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