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This week in history: the introduction of ‘OK’ into national vernacular

ByRosanna Marshall

Mar 21, 2016

On 23 March, 1839, the term ‘OK’ was published in the Boston Morning Press. We may not usually think about the words we use in everyday conversation, but before ‘OK’ was added into the standard vernacular, what did we use instead? As Allan Metcalf points out in the February 2011 BBC News Magazine: ‘’OK’ is everywhere, used every day’. Even if you’ve never given it any thought, this small, seemingly inconsequential word has a fascinating history.

Despite popular opinion, the term ‘OK’ did not originate from the Army biscuit ‘Orin Kendall’, nor from a favourite port for acquiring rum, Aux Cayes. In fact, it began as a slang term in the 19th century, used by educated individuals. Just like today, in the 1830s it was fashionable to abbreviate words to create popular slang terms, such as ‘OW’ (‘oll wright’). ‘OK’ was first printed as a joke with reference to the presidential re-election of Martin Van Buren, nicknamed ‘Old Kinderhook’ due to his hometown origins. In the political campaign, Whigs employed the term to portray the Democratic founder, Andrew Jackson, as unintelligent. They claimed that Jackson used ‘OK’ as an abbreviation for ‘all correct’ to sign approved documents, mocking his spelling ability. The slate to the Democratic Party found its way into the national newspaper and discovered a lucky niche.

The term inspired different opinions at first, many avoiding the trend due to its implications of illiteracy. However, its gradual acceptance demonstrates a turning point in the American lifestyle as changes to the norm were gradually embraced, spiralling into what later became the 20th century individualism and popular culture.

‘OK’ is now viewed as one of America’s most circulated lingual inventions, leading to its own adaptation in spelling such as ‘okay’. Due to today’s internationalism and ease of communication, in Britain we see Americanisms in spelling every day. However, as a word in its own right, ‘OK’ has been embraced worldwide. This is proved by its adoption in the title of the world’s largest celebrity magazine, which now reaches over 20 countries globally, only 150 years after the word’s creation.

Image: Maximilian Schönherr

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