This Thursday, March 23, 2017, is the 178th birthday of America’s (and the world’s) greatest word.
Yes, OK is the word. And it was born on Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post on Saturday, March 23, 1839.
Actually, OK was so successful from the beginning that its birthday couldn’t be discerned until more than a century later, when the Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read published a series of articles on OK in the journal American Speech. Perusing nearly every page of every newspaper published in Boston toward the end of the 1830s, he demonstrated that all OKs led back to that March 23 item.
Back then, a fad for humorous abbreviations enlivened the pages of Boston newspapers, some using accurate initials for humorous names and activities, like the A.B.R.S., the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, and O.F.M. (our first men), and some with deliberate misspellings, like O.K. or O.W. (all right). So the context for a humorous misspelling was unusually encouraging.
The editor of the Morning Post liked his new coinage — at birth it was “o. k.” — and used it again several times that year. Meantime, other newspapers in Boston also liked it and began using the distinctive combination of straight-line K with curved O.
Then the 1840 presidential election came along, between President Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison. Van Buren’s hometown happened to be Kinderhook, N.Y., so his campaign came up with the idea of forming “O.K. Clubs” across the nation, for Old Kinderhook.
By the end of 1840, OK had become so successful that it moved a writer for the Boston Times to publish a comic poem about it. It has 14 eight-line stanzas, beginning with:
What is’t that ails the people, Joe?
They’re in a kurious way,
For every where I chance to go,
There’s nothing but o.k.
They do not use the alphabet,
What e’er they wish to say,
And al the letters they forget
Except the o. and k.
The poem includes not just oll korrect, but oll capsized, oll krazy, off to Kuba, over cautious, out of koal, orrible kokettes, and a dozen more coinages. (You can find the complete poem in my book, OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.)
And then - well, here the history of OK becomes mysterious. Someone got the idea of using it to mark approval on documents. (No, it wasn’t President Andrew Jackson, though a fake-news article made that claim.) And as the railroad and the telegraph developed, someone got the idea of using OK to signal that a train would arrive on time. As more historical documents become available online, there’s a good chance that some researcher will find the 19th-century documents behind these innovations.
There is also a current development in the history of OK. In the 21st century, it is rapidly changing its appearance from OK to okay, so that instead of looking like an acronym, it appears to be just another ordinary word. You can see on Google NGrams that okay is gaining rapidly, while OK is falling back. Just as Pinocchio became a real boy, it’s becoming a real word, no longer an abbreviation suited just for informal conversation.
So take time to celebrate OK this Thursday. Any way you care to observe the occasion, it’s OK. I mean okay.