“Ok?” “Okay!”

Ok (or okay) is one of those words (like hiccup/hiccough), wherein I always thought the different spellings could be attributed to one being an older, more formal spelling of the word, and the other a modern abbreviation. I assumed that okay was the original spelling, and ok the modern version, after some clever individual realised that the two letters pronounced one after the other sounded the same as okay. But like hiccough and hiccup, I was wrong to assume so.

The generally-accepted origin of ok is as part of a short-lived trend in New York and Boston in the late 1830s to create abbreviations for common sayings with deliberate misspellings. Ok, you see, was short for “oll korrect” (all correct). Other examples of this fad included nc (“nuff ced”) and ky (“know yuse”). The spelling okay didn’t appear until 1929, and was probably used by people assuming that that was the correct spelling.

It’s not only interesting that ok is the older spelling than okay. What’s amazing to me is that one word from this strange little trend over a short period not only survived, but went on to become such a commonly-used word. What made ok so successful when its contemporaries like nc and ky disappeared so quickly? (well, KY is still around, but with a different meaning!) I think it’s simply to do with the sound. The two letters go well together and produce a naturalistic sound that feels like it’s always been a complete word (hence why people assumed it was originally okay). It’s also quite versatile, depending on which syllable you emphasise. Stress the k, and it’s an upbeat, enthusiastic signifier of agreement—ok! Stress the o, though, and it signifies resigned acceptance—ok…

It’s also a nice example of how humour can be very specific to a time and place (“oll korrect?” hilarious!) Although maybe lots of people didn’t find the fad funny at the time either, hence why it didn’t last long. It’s fascinating though, how something that’s so fundamental to our use of English can come from such a specific, strange little origin. Could you imagine that whoever first thought up ok would think that 180 years later it would be a word people would use every day in a variety of ways? It’s hard to imagine the language without it, which makes it so amazing that it’s so modern! That’s something I love about English: it’s democratic. It takes words from all sorts of places, and if the word fits a niche, people will use it and it’ll enter the dictionary.

Next: the twisted origins of okily dokily

10 thoughts on ““Ok?” “Okay!”

  1. I heard ones and ever after believed OK was the initials of a factory foreman or goods inspector back in “merry old England” two centuries ago. He’d initial the quality goods with his OK and it would be shipped out.
    Although you may be right, “Oll Korrect” doesn’t really make sense. “AC” would be just as likely. Oh, well, lost in the mists of time…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] OK, nothing surprising there, but that second part of the line gives us a clue as to how Horace meant the line in a slightly different way from how we use it now. He meant that we can’t rely on things to work out in the future, so we need to seize today and do what we can now to make the future that we want. He was basically saying that we shouldn’t put off till tomorrow what we can do today, but also, that we should think about what we really want, and make it happen now. […]

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