Background information

Why does the whole world say «OK»?

Carolin Teufelberger
Zurich, on 08.08.2022
Translation: Christine Duranza

OK. Two letters – one round, one forked – that mean «all right» to just about everyone. A word that went viral 183 years ago.

If I type the two letters «OK» in my WhatsApp search box, I get hundreds of results. And that’s despite the fact that my history only goes back to the end of March. Years worth of previous messages are still on my old phone, which currently lies in the hands of a brazen thief in Johannesburg.

What nevertheless becomes clear is that «OK» is used astoundingly often. Not only in writing but also in songs, conversations and movies. Everywhere. A short internet search reveals that this is the most recognized word in the world.

But why?

There has long been debate among linguists as to its origin. One theory is that the word was brought to the U.S. by West African slaves, given that the Wolof word «woukey» signifies «all right». Another theory attributes the word to American border agents and their allegedly poor spelling skills. If immigrants' baggage was unobtrusive, workers would mark it with the abbreviation «OK» for «oll klear».

Memes from 1839

Today, however, the predominant theory is a different one, but one which also has to do with misspelling. Etymologist Allen Walker Read found a «Boston Morning Post» newspaper article from 29 March 1839 containing the sentence, «He ... would have the 'contribution box,' et ceteras, o.k. – all correct – and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.»

«All correct» would logically be abbreviated as «AC», but the young elite of the time found it entertaining to play around with the abbreviations of phrases. For example, at that time «KG» was the abbreviation for «Know Go», the incorrect spelling of «No Go» or «OW» for «oll wright», meaning «all right», which were used in various American newspaper articles. However, only «OK» is still in use today.

And that’s thanks to President Martin Van Buren and his re-election campaign of 1840. Born in the town of Kinderhook, Van Buren was known by his supporters as Old Kinderhook. And the resulting abbreviation? «OK» of course. «OK Clubs» popped up all around the country. Van Buren’s campaign slogan «Old Kinderhook is OK» played off the double meaning of the abbreviation «OK».

Political cartoon depicting a difficult road for Van Buren to re-election.
Political cartoon depicting a difficult road for Van Buren to re-election.

Van Buren lost to his competitor William Henry Harrison but abetted the triumphant propagation of «OK». It wasn’t long before the whole country was familiar with the abbreviation. It appeared in books, telegrams and films. Buzz Aldrin even used the word in 1969, as the world waited spellbound for the first manned landing on the moon. «Ok, engine stop.» And with increasing globalization and the rising popularity of American culture, the word soon made its way into the vocabularies of European, Asian, African, Oceanic, and South American peoples.

Complete with its own gesture

The word even comes with its own gesture. By placing your thumb and index finger together like a ring and extending your remaining fingers, you are communicating that «everything is okay». At least that’s the case in scuba diving language and in countries such as Switzerland, Germany, and the US. If you make the gesture in Turkey, Greece or Brazil, you won't be making friends any time soon considering it’s an insult. Since 2017, the gesture has also been used in extremist circles (in German only) to symbolize white power and has therefore been included in the American Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) database of hate symbols.

Fortunately, my WhatsApp chats include no such use of the word. Though at times a standalone «OK» causes me a fair amount of worry. Because rather than signalling that the person I’m chatting with is fine and dandy, it means they’re actually irritated. And most probably with me.

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My life in a nutshell? On a quest to broaden my horizon. I love discovering and learning new skills and I see a chance to experience something new in everything – be it travelling, reading, cooking, movies or DIY.


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