March 19th 2018

Today I learned that nobody really knows where the word ‘O.K.’ comes from, even though it is the single most widely-used word in the whole word. It’s a word used in many languages, from Mandarin and Hebrew to Flemish (did you know I’m one-sixteenth Flemish?) Looking at it, it doesn’t even look like a word. Stylised with the periods, it looks like an abbreviation, or someone’s initials. In fact, that’s actually one of the theories as to where the word ‘O.K’ comes from: somebody’s initials.

The 8th President of the United States was a guy called Martin van Buren (no relation, I think, the Dutch DJ and music producer). In the 18th century, when he was cooking about, newspapers and telegrams were always looking for ways to shorten words and save letters, because printing letters was/is* expensive.

To save letters in the President’s name they would print his old nickname, which was “Old Kinderhook” (because he was from a place called Kinderhook, I guess), instead of typing out the whole thing. I don’t know why they didn’t just shorten his name to MvB instead, but I’m sure they had their reasons.

I can see how we got from ‘Old Kinderhook’ to ‘O.K’ but I don’t see how we got to that being the most popular word used worldwide.

*I also found out today that the price of printer ink is one of the greatest scams of modern times — that’s a story for a different day, but the long and short of it is that an ink cartridge that sells for £50 costs about 25p to manufacture. 

That is one of the most popular theories of the etymology of O.K./OK/Okay, but there’s not one that is widely regarded as correct. The one that makes most sense to me is the theory that it’s derived from the Scottish phrase ‘Och Aye’, which means, like, ‘OH YES’. But of we agree to that then we have to agree on where ‘Och’ comes from, and then it all gets confusing again.

It’s interesting, because the word ‘okay’ doesn’t mean anything, but yet it means so much. It doesn’t really stand for anything, but it says so much. It’s a backchannel, an agreement, a descriptor, an emotional state, a question, an answer, and a really short sentence. It’s a word used by billions of people, and yet we don’t really know what it means, and we don’t really know where it comes from.

Until tomorrow, language is crazy.


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