Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Happy Birthday, OK!

Today, March 23, 2011, is the first annual OK Day, celebrating America's greatest word (or expression?) and most successful export.

It's not the first birthday of OK, of course. OK was born 172 years ago, in the Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839. But it's the first celebration.

Why celebrate? The author of the first book ever written on OK says recognition of America's greatest word and most successful export is long overdue.

The book is OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word, published by Oxford University Press. Author Allan Metcalf ends the book by calling OK "so mighty yet so humble. . . . We ought to celebrate OK Day every year on its birthday, March 23."

"In today's troubled world, we should be happy when things turn out OK, even if they aren't perfect," Metcalf explains. "OK inspires us to keep going."

The world-wide celebration is being chronicled on a Facebook page, OKDayMarch23.

From a joke in that Boston newspaper (a deliberate misspelling of the abbreviation for "all correct"), against all odds OK has become an essential part of conversations around the world, a way of expressing agreement and acceptance, even in the face of difficulties.

So how should people celebrate?

"Celebrate any way you want," Metcalf says. "It's OK."

But he has some suggestions:

  • Be OK.
  • Tell others they are OK.
  • Listen to OK used by yourself and others, to gain appreciation for the versatile expression.
  • Say OK as often as you can.
  • Design and wear an OK T shirt.
  • Write an OK poem and recite it to friends.
  • Compose an OK song. Form an OK Chorale and sing it.
  • Bake an OK cake, decorated with a big OK. Call it an OKake.
  • Read aloud the story in the Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839, that includes the first instance of OK. (It's in Metcalf's book.)
  • Make a road trip to Kinderhook, New York, the home of "Old Kinderhook," U.S. President Martin Van Buren. (His supporters adopted the slogan "O.K. is O.K." for the 1840 election.)
  • Make a road trip to the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.

Metcalf says OK reflects the pragmatic spirit of America, making something work even if it's not perfect. And the book title I'm OK—You're OK has become a familiar saying that has led people to be more tolerant of differences.

With its distinctive yet simple look and sound, OK has made itself at home in many languages around the world, so much so that many people have proposed it originated in a phrase in their own languages—Greek, Latin, German, French, Cockney, and African languages, just to mention a few. But as Metcalf's book makes clear, overwhelming evidence shows that OK was the 1839 brainchild of Charles Gordon Greene, editor of the Boston Morning Post. He was merely following a fad for creating humorous abbreviations when he wrote in the midst of a joking paragraph, "o.k.—all correct."

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.

Read a Q&A with Metcalf about his book on the Oxford University Press blog.
"OK" emerged out of "abbreviation play" popular in the early 19th century.
Predicting New Words
We interviewed Metcalf about his previous book, "Predicting New Words."