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OK, Happy 177th!

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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, 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 word.

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.

 

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