“OK” is one of the most recognized and frequently used words in the world. It is also one of the oddest expressions ever invented. But its oddity may account for its popularity.
It’s odd-looking. It’s a word that looks and sounds like an abbreviation, an acronym. We generally spell it OK – the spelling okay is relatively recent, and still relatively rare – and we pronounce it not “ock” but by sounding the names of each the letters O and K. So both in speech and in writing, OK stands out clearly, easily distinguished from other words, and yet it uses simple sounds that are familiar to a multitude of languages.
In Native American Choctaw: Okeh (it is so), in Scottish: Och aye (oh yes), Greek: Ola kala (all is right), German: ohne Korrektur (without needing correction), Finnish: Oikea (correct) and Mandinka: O ke (that’s it). On March 23rd, 1839, OK was introduced to the world on the second page of the Boston Morning Post, in the midst of a long paragraph, as “o.k. (all correct)”.
Clever coinages are laughed at and enjoyed, but are hardly ever adopted. However, within a decade people began actually marking OK on documents, and using OK on the telegraph to signal that all was well. So OK had found its niche, being easy to say, write and distinctive enough to be clear. But the use of OK was restricted.
The misspelled abbreviation may have implied illiteracy to some, but OK was generally avoided in anything except business contexts or in fictional dialogue, by characters deemed to be rustic or illiterate. By the 20th Century, OK had moved from margin to mainstream, becoming a staple of nearly everyone’s conversation. No longer looked on as illiterate or slang, its true origin was gradually forgotten.
OK is also one of the few words that actually originated in North America.