Word of the Week: OK


Sure, just fine, that’ll do; it’s not great or fantastic, not awful nor terrible, neither delicious nor disgusting, thrilling or disheartening; it’s simply OK.

Not a word to get the heart racing. Sometimes it can outright sound more of a disappointment than anything:

 – Will you marry me? – OK. 

How was the wedding? – it was OK.

 – Is the baby cute?  – he’s OK.

A pretty mediocre word, I gave ‘OK’ little-to-no thought until I discovered that it perhaps originates from the Scots “och aye” (“oh yes”). But “och aye” is so much more expressive, so much fuller in the mouth and so much more affirmative – an “of course!” rather than a “sure, why not…”. Was it toned-down by Scots and Irish immigrants to North America only to be ferried back to Europe in its weakened form?

That’s one of many hypotheses. It turns out that for such a bland expression OK has been much debated about. Some other (among the more probable) propositions as to the origins of OK are as follows:

– Initials of “oll korrect” – Coined during a fad for comical misspellings and abbreviations in the 19th century

– From the Wolof “waw-kay” (waw “yes” + emphatic -kay ) – Introduced by West African slaves

– A misspelling of “O.R.” for ‘Order Received’ – A common mistake in the Western US in the 18th century due to the similar shaped of the letters R and K.

– Initials of the Greek “Όλα Καλά” meaning Everything is well – entering the English language as an abbreviation used by Greek immigrants in United States in the late 1900s, when sending telegrams to their relatives in Greece to keep the cost low.

– From the Greek “och, och” (ὤχ, ὤχ), a magical incantation against fleas  – (improbable but still probably my favourite explanation)

– Initials of “Open Key” – A global telegraph signal used in the 19th century and meaning “ready to transmit”

– Initials of Omnis Korrecta (“all correct” in Latin) – Used by early schoolmasters marking examination papers

– From the Occitan oc (“yes”) – Introduced by colonists to French Louisiana

– From the French O qu’oui (“ah, yes”) – proposed as an explanation in 1945…

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the noun is first attested to in1841; the verb in 1888. Now so omnipresent that we not only say it but click on it dozens of times each day, OK has even been deemed worthy of a whole book in its honour: Allan Metcalf’s OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word”. If you’re kind of interested but just not the 240-pages-kind-of-interested, you can read a summary by the same author in this BBC article.


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