This morning CBS Sunday Morning did a segment by Mo Rocca commemorating what he called “The 175th anniversary of a word that English Professor Allan Metcalf believes is America’s most successful export.”
Well, Mo and Allen came awfully close. They touched on a lot of theories I brought out in Most Comprehensive Origins of Cliches, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions. This book contains a lot of other type expressions, including curious words and phrases with obscure origins. It just turns out that O.K. is one of them. Yes, it was never in the public eye until 1839,175 years ago, when Boston Post founder and editor, Charles Gordon Greene brought it to our attention as a shortening of Ole Korrect (All correct)…but, unlike the claim made on CBS Sunday Morning, he didn’t ‘Think it up.” Yes, the first dictionary to include it was 1864. But… neither of these occasions was it’s original coining.
I spent three years studying etymology and phrase origins so that I could do the best job to date of revealing these findings in my book. Below I have posted “The rest of the story” including the fact that it was already in use by 1790! Eat your heart out Allan Metcalf and Mo Rocca.
The first known printed example of this expression is from a 1790 court record in Sumner County, Tennessee. The record was discovered in 1859 by a Tennessee historian named Albigence Waldo Putnam. In the records, Andrew Jackson said that he:
“…proved a bill of sale from Hugh McGary to Gasper Mansker, for an uncalled good, which was O.K.”
An early notation of our modern usage appears in 1815 on the handwritten diary of William Richardson, who had traveled from Boston to New Orleans about a month after the famous battle fought there by Jackson. In the note he stated, “We arrived ok.” Here it is used to mean ‘all well.’
It is believed that the actual derivation of the term was from a frequent misspelling of ‘all correct’ as ‘ole korrect.’
The Boston Morning Post on 23 March 1839 carried an article using the term with the insinuation that this was indeed the origin. It ended this way:
“…and his train-band, would have his ‘contribution box,’ et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.”
One year later, when Martin Van Buren was running for his second term as President of the U.S., the initials O.K. became a part of his campaign slogan. He was born in Kinderbrook, N.Y., and his nickname was Old Kinderbrook. His friends formed a committee for his campaign, called “The Democratic O.K. (Old Kinderbrook) Club.” The slogan took off and he won the election.
Then on 23 October 1862, when James Pyle, placed an ad in The New York Times, referring to ‘James Pyle’s O.K. Soap’ the term received even greater precedence, plunging it into everyday accepted English. Pyle’s soap recipe was later purchased by Proctor and Gamble, and the name was changed to ‘Ivory Snow.’ Pyle’s obituary in January, 1900, said that he was the first to use O.K. in an advertisement.
As a result of these varied events, O.K. came to mean what it does today. It may also be spelled ‘okay.’