was brought to the United States by African slaves, as part of their native
language. It has been claimed that the phonetic waw-kay is a phrase
(or word) in either the Bantu or Wolof dialects (or both), kay being
a word meaning yes and waw an emphatic; waw-kay is an
emphatic yes. The use of the word kay alone is recorded in the
speech of black Americans as early as 1776. Significantly, the emergence of
OKAY in white Americans’ vocabulary dates from a period when many
refugees from Southern slavery were arriving in the North.
THE CHOCTAW THEORY
Some linguists draw
attention to the Choctaw word okeh, which has the same pronunciation
and meaning as in general American usage; U.S. President Woodrow Wilson,
among others, used this spelling to emphasize the word’s Native American
THE OLD KINDERHOOK THEORY
U.S. President Martin Van Buren was called Old Kinderhook after his
birthplace of Kinderhook, New York. On March 24, 1840, during Van Buren’s
bid for re-election, his Democratic supporters opened the OK Club on Grand
Street in New York City—inspired by the initials of Van Buren's nickname.
Van Buren lost, but
OK lived on.
THE ORL KORRECT THEORY
The 1830s saw a rise in the number of quirky abbreviations of common
phrases. For example, ISBD meant “it shall be done,” RTBS “it
remains to be seen” and SP “small potatoes.” Furthermore, KY
stood for “no use” (know yuse) and, as noted in the Boston Morning Post
on March 23, 1839, OK served as shorthand for “all correct” (orl
THE CIVIL WAR THEORY
During the Civil War,
when a battalion returned from the front, the first man in line carried a
sign displaying the number of men killed in action: “9 Killed,” “5 Killed,”
and so on. If the number was zero, the sign read OK, indicating that
all had survived.
THE FRENCH THEORY
One theory, published in London’s Daily Express newspaper in 1940,
suggests that the term came into use during the American Revolutionary War.
French sailors, remaining near their ships, patronized American women aux
quais—the French term for on the docks, which is pronounced okay.
THE ANGLO-SAXON THEORY
Several centuries before okay’s first appearance, Norwegian and
Danish sailors used the Anglo-Saxon term hogfor, meaning
seaworthy. This was often abbreviated HG, pronounced hag-gay.
THE SHIPBUILDER THEORY
Early shipbuilders marked the timber they prepared. The first to be laid was
marked OK Number 1, short for Outer Keel Number 1.
OK is an adaptation of the Scottish expression och-aye—deriving
from och, an exclamation of surprise, and aye, meaning
yes—which dates back to the 16th century.
THE OLD ENGLISH THEORY
In old England, the last harvest loads brought in from the fields were
called hoacky or horkey. The same term also denoted the feast
following the harvest and, thus, indicated its satisfactory completion. It
was soon shortened to OK.
THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT THEORY
Some bills going through the House of Lords required the approval of Lords
Onslow and Kilbracken. After reading and approving these bills, they would
both initial them, producing the combined signature OK.
THE PRUSSIAN THEORY
The Prussian general Schliessen, who fought on the side of the American
colonies during the Revolutionary War, was granted the title Oberst
Kommandant, or Colonel-in-Command. All his orders were initialed OK.
THE GREEK THEORY
According to the text Geoponica, dated 920 CE, the Greek letters
omega and khi, when repeated twice, are effective as a magical
incantation against fleas.
THE SCHOOLMASTER THEORY
Early schoolmasters marked examination papers with the Latin omnis
korrecta (all correct), sometimes abbreviated OK. In ancient
Greece, teachers marked excellent papers with OK for ola kala,
indicating all is good.
THE FINNISH THEORY
The Finnish word for correct is oikea.
THE INDIAN CHIEF THEORY
Keokuk, Iowa, is named for an Indian chief. His admirers sometimes remarked,
"Old Keokuk, he's all right"; the initials OK came to mean the
Telegraph operator Oscar Kent never made mistakes in his transmissions. A
telegraph message signed O.K. signalled that all was correct.
THE OK / Okay
spelling of OK is okay. The spelling OK constitutes
historical revisionism, as all evidence points to the word okay
coming from Africa and being in use long before any record of OK. See
The African Theory and The Choctaw Theory