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March 16, 2024 9 mins

OK may be the most frequently spoken word in the world -- but what does it stand for? How did it get here? Learn the etymology behind it in this episode of BrainStuff, based on this article -- okay? Okay!

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio, Hey brain Stuff
Lauren Vogelbaum here, the word okay is probably the most
spoken word in the world. Even outside of its originator English,
people say okay in some dozen languages, including Spanish, Italian,

and Russian. But where did it come from? And how
do you spell it? That second one is easy. Most
dictionaries have accepted that people vacillate among the two letter
okay and the four letter okay and say that either
are well okay. But as to its origins, there are

a lot of myths. Some say it was borrowed from
a Choctaw word okay. Others suggest it originated with the
Boston baker named Otto Kimmel, who liked to frost his
initials into his biscuits. Couldn't have had anything to do
with the state of Oklahoma abbreviated oak or the musical Oklahoma, Nope, Nope,

and nope. For the article, this episode is based on
How Stuffworks, spoke the Anatoly Lieberman, a linguist, translator and
language professor at the University of Minnesota. He said, okay
is the greatest American word. The history of okay is
a history of incredible success. But nobody could have predicted

that success. As you'll see, okay began as a piece
of insider slang from the late eighteen thirties and wrote
a losing presidential campaign to nationwide fame and eventually worldwide ubiquity.
But let's start at the beginning. In the early eighteen hundreds,
new printing technologies dramatically reduced the cost of publishing newspapers,

and there was a resulting explosion of inexpensive new daily
periodicals known collectively as the penny press, competing for readers.
Penny papers and cities like New York, Philadelphia in Boston
published not only straight news stories, but also witty takes
on the latest political scandals, social scenes, and popular trends.

Think of it as the Internet of the eighteen thirties,
and much like the Internet, the lively back and forth
chatter between penny paper editors gave birth to new ways
of writing and eventually new ways of speaking. Famed etymologist
Alan Walker Reid worked on and off for some twenty
years to trace the full history of the word okay

back in the middle of the nineteen hundreds. A note
that this was decades before digitized newspaper archives were keyword searchable.
Lieberman said Reid must have spent hundreds of hours digging
through tons and tons of physical newspapers, journals, private letters,
and other documents. In a research paper published in nineteen

sixty three in the journal American Speech, Reid explained that
the road to Okay began in the summer of eighteen
thirty eight in Boston. There there developed what he called
a remarkable vogue that might well be called a craze
of using abbreviations a Boston's Morning Post used in June

and July of that year comically complicated acronyms for anything
and everything. For example, RTBS for remains to be seen,
dl ec for do let them come, and GTDHD for
give the devil his due, the last of which editor
Charles Gordon Green was obligated to explain a few days later,

after having received several letters from confounded readers. By nineteen
thirty nine, the initial language, as it was sometimes called,
had arrived in New York City and had already leapt
from print to fashionable slang. The editors of New York's
Even Tattler wrote, this is a species of spoken shorthand,
which is getting into very general use among loafers and

gentlemen of the fancy. They claimed to have overheard a
conversation between two young sweethearts where the girl turned to
her bow and said OKKBWP, which they speculated could have
meant nothing but one kind kiss before we part. This
all reminds me of how modern text and chat abbreviations

have made their way into verbal vernacular. Perhaps you've heard
someone dryly end an unfunny sentence with lol. And another
thing that Internet users have sometimes shared with nineteenth century Americans,
some thought it was really funny to purposefully misspell stuff.

This reminds me of the way that we modernly might
caption a photo or video of a cat or dog
when it's supposed to be written in the animal's voice,
or how we use misspellings to denote regional accents. Note
that this kind of humor at its worst can be
pretty meanly classist, punching down at those of us humans
who have had less access to education. Tried not to

do that, but at any rate, By the late eighteen thirties,
the misspelling trend had combined with the acronym trend to
produce punchy abbreviations like ky for no use as if
it were spelled knowyus, or OW for all right as

if it were spelled oll wright. Absolutely, no one says
ky or ow anymore, But believe it or not, that
wordplay laid the groundwork for the arrival of the two
letter abbreviation that would conquer the world. In the spring
of eighteen thirty nine, Charles Gordon Green, the editor of

Boston's Morning Post, was engaged in some good natured trash
talk with the editors of the Providence Journal in Rhode Island.
It had to do with a semi satirical citizens group
in Boston called the Anti Bell Ringing Society or ABRs,
of which Green was a member. Providence Paper poked fun
at Green and the ABRs, and Green had to set

the record straight. So it was that on March twenty
first of eighteen thirty nine, at the end of a
short paragraph defending the ABRs, Green coined the acronym OKA,
meaning all correct, similar to using OW for all right.
Green had coined this new misspelled acronym okay for olll

krr ect. Three days after Green introduced Oka to the world,
the Providence Journal editors responded with an ok of their own.
Alike other offbeat acronyms of the day, okay was an
inside joke randomly thrust into general circulation. But unlike ow,

which enjoyed brief popularity in the eighteen thirties, okay didn't
die out. And that's thanks to Martin Van Buren, the
eighth President of the United States, held from the small
town of Kinderhook, New York. Similar to his mentor and
fellow Democrat Andrew Jackson, who was known as Old Hickory,
Van Buren's nickname was Old Kinderhook. In the eighteen forty

presidential election, William Henry Harrison and the Whig Party challenged
the incumbent Van Buren. Harrison supporters came up with the
Ketchee for its time campaign slogan and song Tipper Canoe
and Tyler III. The Democrats swung back with the slogan
of their own, Okay is okay, as in Old Kinderhook

is All correct. Clubs sprung up in early eighteen forty
that spread the slogan, making the word okay part of
mainstream political conversation. Van Buren lost badly, but okay definitely
won After eighteen forty, the word spread like wildfire and

never looked back. Originally, okay appeared in documents and telegraph messages,
which may count for its international spread, but not in
everyday speech, as it was slangy, but that changed over time.
Back in twenty twelve, a linguist Alan Metcalf published a
book called Okay, The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word.

In an article for BBC Magazine the previous year, he
speculated as to why okay became popular all over the world.
He wrote, It's not that it was needed to fill
a gap in any language. Before eighteen thirty nine, English
speakers had yes, good, fine, excellent, satisfactory, and all right.

What okay provided that the others did not was neutrality,
a way to affirm or to express agreement without having
to offer an opinion. Okay allows us to view a
situation in simplest terms, just okay or not, which sounds
pretty okay to us. Today's episode is based on the

article Made in America, The Ridiculous History of Okay on
HowStuffWorks dot com, written by Dave Ruse. Brain Stuff is
production of iHeartRadio in partnership with HowStuffWorks dot com and
is produced by Tyler Klang. For more podcasts My Heart Radio,
visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen
to your favorite shows.

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