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."

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday March 23rd 2011, 1:57 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (LIVERPOOL & EXETER United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Well I voted '4' but perhaps i should have voted '5' - 'cause I'm trying to think of another expression which has reached throughout the world and is ubiquitous in so many languages. The only one that sprang to mind was 'god', but I'm sure some much more studious types can think of other examples?
Mike in Riyadh (for the time being)
Wednesday March 23rd 2011, 2:51 AM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
I love OK which is what this article is.
Wednesday March 23rd 2011, 6:55 AM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
Yes I vote "6" because I find that article interesting and it shows us how each other use often the same word
in everyday speech.
I think about "Nice", great, "good" good idea;I have not words that spang in my mind but I am sure more students would able to find more exemples, ( French students maybe?)
Wednesday March 23rd 2011, 12:01 PM
Comment by: Rahla L.
Remember the book "I'm OK, but You're Not So Hot"???

It's great to be OK, and to realize that we just might not be perfect. And that's OK.
Wednesday March 23rd 2011, 2:23 PM
Comment by: noblsavaj (San Antonio, TX)
I have a little song I like to sing when things get hairy:

Everything's going to be ok, everything's going to be ok, everything's going to be ok, be ok, be ok.

It's so effective at stress relief, it is likely to be my last song, sung as that final calamity befalls...
Wednesday March 23rd 2011, 5:57 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
The story of our fabulous phrase "OK" was detailed in the New Yorker a number of years ago.
It was interesting that in his productive academic life, Metcalf had actually dreamed of making his fame based on something far different and more "important" than the simple expression he had successfully researched to its actual origin.
If I recall correctly, his research began in the 1940's.
I enjoyed the accuracy of this article.
Wednesday March 23rd 2011, 9:49 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Roger: I think you mean Allen Walker Read, Metcalf's esteemed predecessor in OK-ology. The New Yorker profile of Read appeared in 1989.
Wednesday March 23rd 2011, 11:24 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, Ben.
I feel honored for your response.
And I've learned to separate Wales and Scotland since your last note.
Monday April 11th 2011, 10:39 AM
Comment by: Anonymous
All Correct ^^
Tuesday August 30th 2011, 2:08 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (LIVERPOOL & EXETER United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
That's OK then - what more can I say.........
Mike Riyadh
Tuesday September 13th 2011, 10:50 AM
Comment by: Carol V. (Pleasant Hill, IA)
We have completed a 9th Grade study of this blog article and have enjoyed learning the history of the word OK. We plan to discuss how we can use the word OK in our vocabulary. OK? LOL!!
Tuesday September 13th 2011, 11:33 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (LIVERPOOL & EXETER United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Reading the comments I think we all agree OK is a GREAT word (or two?. But before OK was invented, what was the greatest expression - was it 'love you'?
Mike in Riyadh
Wednesday May 30th 2012, 2:00 PM
Comment by: Sandy
The Polish also use the word "ok" on a daily basis :) The Spanish, though, use "vale"!
Friday November 2nd 2012, 4:53 PM
Comment by: Lydia W. (NC)
OK; that might be one of my favorite expressions. Do the letters 'O' and 'K' stand for anything? How do you say "ok" in chinese? Do they even use that term? OK is an expression that all teenagers know, and that might be why it's so common. I love OK- I don't think I could live without it!
Great info, btw :)
Sunday November 4th 2012, 7:36 AM
Comment by: Tomahawk (New York, NY)
OK comes from the Greek OLA KALA, which means all is good.
Sunday November 4th 2012, 7:37 AM
Comment by: Tomahawk (New York, NY)
OK comes form the Greek words OLA KALA which mean all is good
Sunday November 4th 2012, 9:19 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
The research indicated that it came from the purposeful misspelling of the phrase "Ol Korect" (all correct) in 1839 at which time I doubt much Hiaween lingo was in use on the East Coast.

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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."