CLOSE
Thinkstock
Thinkstock

What's the Real Origin of "OK"?

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

"OK" is the all-purpose American expression that became an all-purpose English expression that became an all-purpose expression in dozens of other languages. It can be an enthusiastic cheer (A parking spot! OK!), an unenthusiastic "meh" (How was the movie? It was…OK.), a way to draw attention to a topic shift (OK. Here's the next thing we need to do), or a number of other really useful things. It's amazing that we ever got along without it at all. But we did. Until 1839.

There may be more stories about the origin of "OK" than there are uses for it: it comes from the Haitian port "Aux Cayes," from Louisiana French au quai, from a Puerto Rican rum labeled "Aux Quais," from German alles korrekt or Ober-Kommando, from Chocktaw okeh, from Scots och aye, from Wolof waw kay, from Greek olla kalla, from Latin omnes korrecta. Other stories attribute it to bakers stamping their initials on biscuits, or shipbuilders marking wood for "outer keel," or Civil War soldiers carrying signs for "zero killed."

The truth about OK, as Allan Metcalf, the author of OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word, puts it, is that it was "born as a lame joke perpetrated by a newspaper editor in 1839." This is not just Metcalf's opinion or a half remembered story he once heard, as most OK stories are. His book is based in the thorough scholarship of Allen Walker Read, a Columbia professor who for years scoured historical sources for evidence about OK, and published his findings in a series of journal articles in 1963 to 1964.

It started with a joke

OK, here's the story. On Saturday, March 23, 1839, the editor of the Boston Morning Post published a humorous article about a satirical organization called the "Anti-Bell Ringing Society " in which he wrote:

The "Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells," is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have his "contribution box," et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.

It wasn't as strange as it might seem for the author to coin OK as an abbreviation for "all correct." There was a fashion then for playful abbreviations like i.s.b.d (it shall be done), r.t.b.s (remains to be seen), and s.p. (small potatoes). They were the early ancestors of OMG, LOL, and tl;dr. A twist on the trend was to base the abbreviations on alternate spellings or misspellings, so "no go" was k.g. (know go) and "all right" was o.w. (oll write). So it wasn't so surprising for someone come up with o.k. for oll korrect. What is surprising is that it ended up sticking around for so long while the other abbreviations faded away.

Then it got lucky

OK got lucky by hitting the contentious presidential election jackpot. During the 1840 election the "oll korrect" OK merged with Martin van Buren's nickname, Old Kinderhook, when some van Buren supporters formed the O.K. Club. After the club got into a few tussles with Harrison supporters, OK got mixed up with slandering and sloganeering. It meant out of kash, out of karacter, orful katastrophe, orfully confused, all kwarrelling or any other apt phrase a pundit could come up with. It also got mixed up with the popular pastime of making fun of van Buren's predecessor, Andrew Jackson, for his poor spelling. One paper published a half-serious claim that OK originated with Jackson using it as a mark for "all correct" (ole kurrek) on papers he had inspected.

OK was the "misunderestimated," "refudiated," and "binders full of women" of its day, and it may have ended up with the same transitory fate if not for the fact that at the very same time, the telegraph was coming into use, and OK was there, a handy abbreviation, ready to be of service. By the 1870s it had become the standard way for telegraph operators to acknowledge receiving a transmission, and it was well on its way to becoming the greatest American word.

But, as Metcalf says, its ultimate success may have depended on "the almost universal amnesia about the true origins of OK that took place early in the twentieth century. With the source of OK forgotten, each ethnic group and tribe could claim the honor of having ushered it into being from an expression in their native language." By forgetting where OK came from, we made it belong to us all.

This Big Question came from Emerson Whitney, who inquired about the history of OK via Twitter.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
iStock
iStock

Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
iStock
iStock

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios