The Grammarphobia Blog

I’m OK, you’re okay

Q: I was writing dialogue for a short-story class when it occurred to me that I had seen five different spellings of a word I was about to use: “O.K.,” “OK,” “okay,” “o.k.,” and “ok.” Which is correct? Is the two-letter version an acronym? If so, what does is stand for? Where does this odd word come from? Sadly, my dictionary isn’t much help.

A: The first three spellings are OK. Forget about the last two. As for which of the three legitimate ones should go in the mouth of your character, this is a matter of style, not grammar or usage.

The New York Times stylebook, for instance, prefers the dotted “O.K.” while the Associated Press stylebook favors the dotless “OK.” Garner’s Modern American Usage says all three are legit.

“Although OK predominates in highly informal contexts,” Garner says, “okay has an advantage in edited English: it more easily lends itself to cognate forms such as okays, okayer, okaying, and okayed.”

Yes, the two-letter version is an acronym. It stands for “oll korrect” or “orl korrect,” jocular 19th-century spellings of “all correct.” You may be surprised at how much has been written about this little two-letter word.

The etymologist and lexicographer Allen Walker Read, perhaps the world’s leading authority on OK-ness, wrote six articles about the subject in 1963 and 1964 in the journal American Speech.

Read, in his research, discovered that “o.k.” (it originally had lower-case letters and dots) was just one of many whimsical acronyms coined in the 19th century: “O.W.” for “oll wright,” “K.G.” for “know good,” “K.Y.” for “know yuse,” and so on.

The earliest known published reference for “OK” is from an 1839 editor’s note in the Boston Morning Post: “He … would have the ‘contribution box,’ o.k. – all correct – and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.”

But soon after “OK” made its initial appearance (no pun intended), wordies began imagining that the initials stood for all sorts of other phrases.

An 1840 article in the Lexington Intelligencer, cited by the Oxford English Dictionary, includes several of these mythical phrases and suggests that the real one is a phony:

“Perhaps no two letters have ever been made the initials of as many words as O.K. … When first used they were said to mean Out of Kash, (cash;) more recently they have been made to stand for Oll Korrect, Oll Koming, Oll Konfirmed, &c. &c.”

Hugh Rawson, in his book Devious Derivations, lists 13 of the more interesting apocryphal sources of “OK,” including these: “Old Kinderhook” (President Martin Van Buren’s nickname), a Choctaw term hoke or okey, Oberst Kommandant (German for “colonel in command”), and a word for “good” in a West African language spoken by slaves in the American South.

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