[lg policy] OK, Happy 177th!

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Mar 3 14:57:29 UTC 2016

 OK, Happy 177th!

[image: PhotoELF Edits: 2008:10:18 --- Batch JPG Compressed YUV444 EXIF 100
%] <http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/files/2016/03/23823.jpg>Just
after the vernal equinox of 1839, and just a month before the anniversary
of Shakespeare’s birth, OK was born. America’s and the world’s greatest
word came to the light of day as a humble joke on Page 2 of the *Boston
Morning Post* for March 23, 1839: “o. k. — all correct.”

It needed that gloss because the meaning of this new expression was far
from obvious. The joke, of course, was that *all* does not begin with o,
and *correct* does not begin with k, so the resulting combination is a
paradox — “all correct” is the opposite of all correct.

That was the kind of excitement they were having in Boston in 1839. This
fledgling o. k. was but one of many humorous abbreviations the Boston
newspapers were tossing around — like ABRS for the Anti-Bell-Ringing
Society, a group of young men whose cause was protesting a law prohibiting
the ringing of dinner bells (yes, that made them really the *pro*-bell-ringing
society), or “o.w.” for “all right,” another blatant misspelling.

Most of these abbreviations, including OFM (our first men), KG (no go), and
KY (no use), faded away by 1840 or so. (Another that didn’t fade was the
“three Rs” still known today.) But despite its oddness, OK (I’ll use the
modern form now) stayed. Indeed, it came to prominence and widespread use
around the country with the presidential election of 1840. Martin Van Buren
was seeking a second term, and since he came from Kinderhook, N.Y., his
supporters took to calling him “Old Kinderhook” and formed O.K. Clubs to
parade and persuade that O.K. was OK. His opponent, William Henry Harrison,
won the election with a more appealing slogan, “Log Cabin and Hard Cider,”
but OK proved its usefulness and stayed on.

Exactly how it became the utilitarian sign of approval and agreement, not
to mention the two-letter summation of American pragmatism, is too
complicated to explain here. You can find the details in my *OK: The
Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word,*
<http://www.allanmetcalf.net/books.html> based on the research of Allen
Walker Read, the great historian of American English.

As the book explains, there is no doubt that the *Boston Morning Post* of
March 23, 1839, is the true origin of OK — though its popularity has
inspired lots of alternate theories giving it a more dignified beginning.
It is fitting that what Oliver Wendell Holmes later called the Hub of the
Universe should be the birthplace of America’s and the world’s greatest

That brings us back to 2016. On March 23 (a Wednesday this year), take a
moment to celebrate OK. How? Personally, I prefer cookies lettered OK, but
that’s the great thing — any way you celebrate is OK.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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