Q. Please tell me where the word "OK" came from.
A. "OK" is probably the most successful of all Americanisms, used around the world. We know nothing about it before its appearance in the Boston "Morning Post" on March 23, 1839: " . . . He of the Journal, and his train-band, would have the `contributions box', et ceteras, o.k. - all correct - and cause the corks to fly. . . . " The Boston editor is jokingly suggesting that a Providence editor (of the "Journal") sponsor a party. How that "OK" came about requires setting forth some background.
First, there were the newspapers. Before the existence of wire services, American newspapers freely exchanged and reprinted interesting items. Also, these early 19th-century newspapers were not as serious as modern ones: They had plenty of room for humor, poetry, fiction and jabs at other newspapers. The first "OK" is part of a humorous reply to an item reprinted from the Providence newspaper.
Second, there was the abbreviation fad. Among the fashionable crowd in American cities in the late 1830s, the thing to do was to reduce almost any phrase to initials. In 1839, a New York newspaper reported an up-to-date young lady as remarking to her escort, "O.K.K.B.W.P." The young man paused, then kissed her. The reporter interpreted the initialism as "One Kind Kiss Before We Part." What the fashionable set says and does often turns up in newspapers, and before long the fad for initials was on in several major American cities. The practice of exchanging items among newspapers undoubtedly helped spread the fad.
Kinderhook, N.Y., the birthplace of their candidate, Martin Van Buren. However, they probably chose the name with an eye to the currently popular "OK," much as modern groups with a cause often choose their names with an eye to making a catchy acronym.
The OKs were mostly rowdies whose purpose was to harass the opposing Whigs and break up their meetings. Their activities kept them in the newspapers, and each side used the popularity of "OK" by contriving expansions that would slur the opponents. The heat of the campaign took "OK," in one signification or another, across the country. When Van Buren lost the election, the Whigs flaunted "OK" for his departure: "Off to Kinderhook."
The campaign gave another boost to "OK." A Whig journalist floated the story that Andrew Jackson used "OK" to stand for "Ole Korrek," which was supposed to be Jackson's spelling of "all correct." This was a reference to the presidential campaign of 1828, in which Jackson's bad spelling had been a campaign issue. Several newspapers reprinted the tale, and "OK" and "oll korrect" and Andrew Jackson became fixed in American folklore. Later Jackson was frequently named as the originator.
The practice of concocting fanciful expansions of "OK" continued for some years after the 1840 campaign, with the result that the real origins were forgotten, and the Andrew Jackson tale persisted. Consequently, interested people offered many explanations, supposedly discovering "OK" in several other languages. One of the most persistent of these involves the Choctaw word "okey" meaning "it is so." This source was suggested in 1885, and Andrew Jackson was involved in the story again, this time through his supposed borrowing from the Choctaw Indians. Woodrow Wilson believed this explanation, and wrote "okey" on papers he approved.