This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at the origin of the word OK and how it became a global phenomenon.
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Hello! It is so good to have you back! My name is Stephen Greene and this is the English with Stephen podcast. Today, I have a word story for you. A word story is where I dive into the history of a word to discover how it became used today.
And today’s word is perhaps the most common English word around the world, even used by people who don’t speak a word of English. In fact, it is not just the planet Earth, but it was the first word ever used on the moon!
And that word is OK. There are many fake stories about how the word came to be invented, but I am here today to give you the one, official, true story.
Stick around to find out, ok?
Ok, so, before we look at ok, I’d like to tell you that I have created a playlist of songs to go with this episode that is linked to the theme of OK. There are some amazing songs and bands on the playlist, so if you want some more musical entertainment, go to my site EnglishwithStephen.com and you will find a link to the OK playlist.
Back to OK.
There are many stories about where ‘OK’ came from. Some say it came from an indigenous language in the USA called Choctaw. Others say it derived from languages in West Africa, Scots Gaelic, or Greek. I have heard a story it was originally used by American pilots in World War 2 when they came back from battle without any injuries, they would use OK to mean zero killed.
The interesting thing about the links to other languages is that they all have merit because they all have a word that sounds similar to ‘OK’. However, the theory that most people believe in these days has nothing to do with any other language.
Here is the real story.
You are in the city of Boston in the USA. It is the 1830s and you are young and educated. You enjoy playing with language as it makes you seem cool and part of a group of other young, educated people. You take great delight in misspelling, that is spelling words incorrectly, but on purpose. You rewrite words so that they look like the way they sound, and then you use the initial letters. This is cool because if people don’t know what the abbreviations mean, it is because they are not part of your crowd.
One of the phrases they used was ‘all correct’. Except they substitute the ‘o’ for the ‘a’ and a ‘k’ for a ‘c’. ‘Oll Korrect’ is then abbreviated to ‘OK’.
One lesson to learn from this is that kids have always played with the language and the next time your grumpy old uncle complains about what kids today are doing with language, feel free to just ignore him.
Now, these young people in Boston did the same thing with lots of phrases, but the only one that is still used today is ‘OK’. There are a number of reasons for this.
In 1840, President Martin Van Buren was running for re-election. His nickname was Old Kinderhook, and so his supporters started calling him OK. They even opened up OK clubs all around the States to encourage people to vote for him. It obviously didn’t work because he lost the election, but it did serve to bring ‘OK’ to the attention of a nation and not just a few language geeks in Boston.
The American telegraph service used the phrase ‘OK’ to show they had received a signal. It was only two letters and easy to produce on the telegraph. It was official policy that you could not assume a message had been successfully transmitted until the receiving office sent back the message ‘OK’.
The letter ‘k’ is quite unusual in English words. It is the 22nd most common letter, with only Z, Q, J, and Z less common. This means that the word ‘OK’ stands out and is easy to see when it is written. This made the companies eager to use ‘OK’ in advertising and promotional material.
At the end of the 19th century, there was even a craze to name companies with a ‘k’. One of the companies that still exists from those days is Kraft.
Quite why the word spread around the world has not been properly explained. However, the fact that when we were discussing the origin of the word we noticed that there were many languages with a similar sounding word to talk about agreement means that it was perhaps in a great position to spread. That, and the fact that it is only two simple letters, has resulted in it being understood from Japan to Brazil and Greenland to Australia.
Thank you so much for joining me today. I honestly hope you have learned something and enjoyed the podcast. If you have, please share this podcast with a friend because hopefully they will like it as well. And don’t forget, you can find a playlist of amazing songs to accompany this episode on my site EnglishwithStephen.com.