OK: Here's how it happened

In the Internet age, there is no doubt how languages might influence one another. But the planetary spread of universal words and phrases began long before our high-tech era. One salient example is the oft-used expression, "OK."

This linguistic gem is so widely employed that many countries and cultures claim OK as their own.

The initials of the high-handed German military rank of Oberst Kommandant may appear a more credible source than Elizabethan English's vague claim of ownership, but neither holds water. Nor do the Choctaw Indian's expression oke or okeh ("it is so"); the Greek's olla kalla ("all good"); the Scots' auch aye ("ah yes"); or France's au quai ("at the quay").

OK's true lineage more likely hails from America. Etymologist Allen Read was famous for tracing the likely origins of OK to the United States. Read began with railway freight agent Obediah Kelly, a suspected forefather of OK because of his habit of penning his initials on lading documents. He then researched a more widespread trend: the consumption of Orrin Kendall biscuits, nicknamed "OK," which sustained many a Union soldier during the Civil War.

Read found more-reputable facts to support his theory of OK's US origin in an 1839 article in The Boston Morning Post, which exposed the spreading fad of using initials and deliberate misspellings for common expressions. OK was all the rage as an abbreviation for "Oll Korrect" - a humorous slang term for "all correct."

Read's quest for linguistic truth concluded with the 1840 reelection campaign of eighth US president Martin Van Buren. Rather than bother pronouncing the politico's Dutch surname, Van Buren's supporters adopted the tag of "Old Kinderhook" from his New York hometown. From then on, Van Buren was known as "OK." His followers renamed themselves "The Democratic OK Club," asking, "Will you not say OK? Go ahead. Vote for OK."

Old Kinderhook's catchy message couldn't convince enough voters to reelect him. But thanks to him, OK finally evolved into a common word.

"A successful new word evolves from previous ones. Usually bad jokes do not succeed ... but this one did," says Dr. Allan Metcalf, author of "Predicting New Words: The Secrets of their Success."

The expression's frequent use in America during the mid-1800s illustrated its versatility and ensured its position in the American lexicon. Other languages soon confirmed OK's universal attraction. Now it's ubiquitous.

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