An LOL Story: OK Is Born in Boston in 1839

The word OK was born on March 23, 1839, a child of New England’s most popular newspaper and a fun-loving group that campaigned against bell ringing in Boston.

Boston Post front page, Jan. 16, 1919

Boston Post front page

OK had siblings – the long-forgotten KG and OW and GT and SP. We might have forgotten OK too. But the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, a presidential campaign and the Boston Post immortalized the expression.

The abbreviations amounted to the LOL and the OMG of the 1830s, a linguistic fad among educated young Brahmins

They shortened popular slang expressions, like GT for ‘gone to Texas’ and SP for ‘small potatoes.’ They took the joke further by first spelling the words wrong. KG, for example, stood for ‘no go.’

OK, which stood for ‘oll korrect’ (all correct), might have been OW, which stood for ‘oll wright.’

Such elaborate comic abbreviations began to appear in newspapers, notes Michael West. In Transcendental Wordplay: America’s Romantic Punsters and the Search for the Language of Nature, he wrote,

Newspaper columns were suddenly sprinkled with mysterious acronyms that other editors and the public had to demonstrate their cleverness by figuring out.

On the Trail to OK

Allan Walker Read, an etymologist and lexicographer, tried to trace the origin of OK in the 1960s.

He found that a group of funsters who called themselves the Anti-Bell Ringing Society made ample use of ‘oll korrect.’ The Anti-Bell Ringing Society belonged to another 19th century fad – clubs devoted to inside jokes. Jokesters, for example, formed the Association of Bankrupt Insurance Companies, the Mammoth Cod Association and the Flouring Committee.

Wags founded the Anti-Bell Ringing Society on Oct. 26, 1838. They did it ostensibly to fight a municipal ordinance banning the ringing of dinner bells in Boston.

When the Boston Post reported on their antics, the writer included one of their favorite slang expressions: OK for ‘oll korrect.’ The Boston Post, BTW, was the most popular daily newspaper for a century in New England. The Post also gave out the Boston Post cane — until it folded in 1956.

By the end of 1839, OK appeared in the Boston Evening Transcript, the New York Evening Tattler and the Philadelphia Gazette.

Henry David Thoreau even used OK. Once, a Concord tailor told him the pants he wanted were out of fashion. He wondered where she got the idea. Oblivious to clothing fashion but susceptible to linguistic fads, Thoreau wrote about the incident. “It is some Oak Hall O Call–OK all correct establishment which she knows but I do not,“ he wrote.

Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren

Going National

OK then went national in the presidential campaign of 1840. Martin Van Buren was running for re-election against William Henry Harrison. Van Buren, born and reared in the New York town of Kinderhook, had the nickname “Old Kinderhook.” Van Buren’s supporters began forming “OK Clubs” around the country. It spread to everyday speech, and by 1864 it showed up in the Slang Dictionary of Vulgar Words.

Other theories about the origin of OK. Some scholars (and Pete Seeger) claim it was a Choctaw Indian word spelled ‘okeh.’ That means “It is so.” Others argue it came from Africa and means “Yes, indeed.” We choose to believe Alan Walker Read’s analysis — oll korrect.

This story was updated in 2021.

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