Stupid Question ™
May 30, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Is it true that “OK” stands for a misspelled version of “all correct,” and originated in Ohio during a presidential race?
A: You’re half-right, which puts you in good company. “OK” has confused even the best etymologists.
OK indeed stands for a deliberate, joking misspelling of “all correct” (apparently “oll korrect” or “orl korrect”). It was coined around 1839, when people thought such abbreviated misspellings were hilarious. Others were “O.W.” (“oll wright”) and “K.G.” (“know go”).
The first known appearance of OK in print was in an article in the March 23, 1839 Boston Morning Post, which explained the term meant “all correct.” It appeared frequently in Boston newspapers that spring, and later in the year spread to New York City journalists.
In the 1960s, linguist Allan Walker Read found sources crediting a “frolicsome group” in Boston called the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society with coining the phrase. I don’t know what this group was; possibly, it had something to do with the mayor’s 1837 ruling that changed the city’s bell-tolling schedule.
In 1840, OK was adopted by New York Democrats as a campaign slogan for President Martin Van Buren, who was running against Ohio’s William Henry Harrison. Van Buren was from Kinderhook, New York, so Democrats pretended OK stood for “Old Kinderhook.” They even started an OK Club in New York City. The slogan helped popularize OK.
Simple enough. But confusion still reigns because the political twists on OK weren’t over. (Also confusing is that the first serious OK study, in 1941, traced it back only to “Old Kinderhook” and therefore declared the “oll korrect” explanation a lie.)
On March 30, 1840, the New York Morning Herald, a Democratic sympathizer, printed a fake origin of OK. It claimed that former Democratic President Andrew Jackson had once declared his postmaster general’s personnel file to be “O.K…Ole Kurrek.” This was a play on Jackson’s semi-literacy, which Democrats had turned into a symbol of his common man-ness (and by extension, Van Buren’s).
Later, it was claimed Jackson wrote “O.K.” on court documents as a lawyer, but the only such document ever produced actually said “O.R.” for the standard legalese “order recorded.”
To get even more confusing, Harrison’s campaign also used OK, in its correct “all correct” form. The aristocratic Harrison was spinning a lie about being a backwoods hero born in a log cabin, and his campaign copped a version of the Jacksonian illiteracy-as-desirable gambit.
A story still current in the 1930s said that OK originated at a Sept. 15, 1840 Harrison rally in Urbana, Ohio, which featured a supposedly homemade banner that read, “The People Is Oll Korrect.” But a Columbus newspaper, and even another Harrison float, used OK well before then.
People of the time, especially those outside the Northeast, must have been confused about what OK actually stood for. Hence, there’s been a deluge of increasingly inane folk etymologies ever since, ranging from Wolof and Surinamian phrases to the names of Indian chiefs, Haitian ports and Civil War cracker makers. They are all bunk.
Incidentally, Van Buren wasn’t OK; he lost the election. And neither was Harrison; he died after a month in office.