Q: I wonder if you would comment on that great Americanism “OK.” Didn’t it come from a president? I remember the nickname “Old Kinderhook,” but not the rest of the story. And what is a kinderhook?
A: Etymologists say “OK,” meaning “all right,” originated as a corrupted abbreviation of “all correct,” a phrase common in the Southeastern US and often humorously written as “orl [or oll] korrect.”
Interestingly, the earliest published references for the abbreviation in the Oxford English Dictionary are from publications in New England, not the Southeast:
1839, in the Boston Morning Post: “He … would have the ‘contribution box’, et ceteras, o.k . – all correct – and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.”
1839, in the Salem Gazette: “The house was O.K. at the last concert, and did credit to the musical taste of the young ladies and gents.”
1839, in the Boston Evening Transcript: “Our Bank Directors have not thought it worth their while to call a meeting, even for consultation, on the subject. It is O.K. (all correct) in this quarter.”
1840, in the (Boston) Atlas: “These initials, according to Jack Downing, were first used by Gen. Jackson. ‘Those papers, Amos [Kendall], are all correct. I have marked them O.K.’ (oll korrect). The Gen. was never good at spelling.”
Contrary to popular opinion, “OK” did not originate as an abbreviation of “Old Kinderhook,” which was Martin Van Buren’s nickname during his 1840 presidential reelection campaign.
The nickname came from the town of Van Buren’s birth, Kinderhook, NY. The town’s name is derived from the Dutch for “children’s corner” (“kind” is child and “hoek” is corner in Dutch).
Van Buren and the Democratic Party did indeed use “OK” in the election campaign “because it conveniently suited his nickname,” according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Etymology. In fact, Van Buren’s supporters in New York called themselves the O.K. Club.
The OED suggests that the two versions of “OK” overlapped during the 1840 presidential campaign, and that the widespread use of the political slogan helped popularize the earlier “OK.”
As for the punctuation/spelling of “OK,” that has varied over the years. I had a blog entry on the subject last year.
I hope this explanation is OK with you.