On March 23, 1839, a funny little abbreviation that would greatly affect all our lives was born. Though it was destined for influence and long life, its beginning was anything but auspicious. It appeared Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post in a long humorous story about Boston’s Anti-Bell-Ringing-Society, a group of young men who opposed legislation prohibiting the ringing of dinner bells. (That’s right. Don’t ask.)
In the midst of that complicated, supposedly humorous story, the author and editor of the paper, Charles Gordon Greene, interpolated an “o. k.” followed in parentheses by the explanation “all correct.” Yes, this was the very first OK. (I’ll use my preferred form from now on.)
The next year, 1840, was a presidential election year. It happened that the incumbent, Martin Van Buren, came from the town of Kinderhook, New York, so his followers bestowed the nickname “Old Kinderhook” on him and formed “OK Clubs” to support his candidacy.
Van Buren lost the election, but OK won the hearts and minds of the nation and soon was put to use as a mark on documents to indicate they were accepted and a telegraph code indicating that a train was on time, or that the transatlantic cable was being laid properly. Exactly how this all happened within a few years in the mid-19th century was explained by Allen Walker Read in a series of articles in the journal American Speech in the 1960s, and more recently a book of mine, OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.
If you’re interested in OK, you will have come across this story before. But as it is America’s greatest word — arguably, the world’s greatest — it deserves regular recognition. And we do this by celebrating March 23 as OK Day.
For company on March 23, OK has National Melba Toast Day, National Chip and Dip Day, National Puppy Day, and even National Near Miss Day, celebrating a comet that didn’t hit the earth in 1989. Those neighbors seem appropriate for a word as modest as OK.
But how should we mark the 178th birthday of the word that confirms appointments, expresses satisfaction, encourages tolerance, and sums up American pragmatism in two little syllables? That’s easy: Celebrate any way you want. Whatever you do, it’s OK. (Suggestions welcome.)Return to Top