"o. K." explained, 1841

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Feb 7 17:17:15 UTC 2008

The New-York Commercial Advertiser was edited by William Leete Stone, a historian.  In December, 1841, he reported on a manuscript recently acquired by the New-York Historical Society: "the original book of general orders of the day, for the American army stationed in the Highlands during the Summer and Autumn of a780".  It had been found among the papers of Baron de Steuben [I would have expected "von Steuben"].  Stone's main interest was in the passage covering the disclosure of the treason by Benedict Arnold, but he includes the following:

"O. K.  We have at length struck upon the origin of these mystical letters -- stolen last year by the wicked Whigs, as their watch words, from the sagamores of Tammany Hall.  It will be seen from the heading of the following order that these letters formed the countersign of the guards on the 6th of September, 1780.  [he then quotes:]

Head Quarters, 6th Sept. 1780.  Parole, Richmond.  Countersigns O. K.  Watch-word -- Fabius.

N-Y Commercial Advertiser, December 6, 1841, p. 2, cols. 1-2

I notice that O. K. was described as "watch words" (plural).  In the quotation from the manuscript, the newspaper represented O. K. as aligned vertically, and linked on the left by a large { -- I believe this is called a swung bracket?  The "Highlands" would be the Hudson Highlands.

He didn't offer an explanation of how this expression survived for nearly 60 years, to be revived the year before, unless he meant that it was in continuous use at meetings of Tammany Hall.  Tammany was founded in 1788.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list