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What's the Real Origin of "OK"?

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"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.

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Words
Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?
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English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent “e” in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that “eight” rhymes with “ate,” “of” rhymes with “love,” and “to” sounds like “too” sounds like “two.” If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons—stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.

But sometimes English takes it a step too far, does something so brazen and shameless we can’t just let it slide. That’s when we have to throw our shoulders back, put our hands on our hips and ask, point blank, what is the deal with the word “colonel”?

“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

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