We have all heard the theories: OK is of Choctaw derivation, or possibly West African. Some linguists attribute it to the “comical misspellings” craze of the 1830s, while others cite Martin Van Buren’s Old Kinderhook campaign, or attempts to lampoon Andrew Jackson as an illiterate who couldn’t manage “all correct.”
What is pretty generally agreed is that the first published usage dates from 1839, in the Boston Morning Post. Describing an outing by the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, the paper reports:
The above is from the Providence Journal, the editor of which is a little too quick on the trigger, on this occasion. We said not a word about our deputation passing “through the city” of Providence.—We said our brethren were going to New York in the Richmond, and they did go, as per Post of Thursday. The “Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells,” is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have his “contribution box,” et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.
This society was one of many waggish stunts pulled by Bostonians of the age, a deep series of in-jokes based on other in-jokes. As should be evident from this passage, not many vestiges of this sort of early-nineteenth-century American wit have survived the ages. O.K., however, has not merely abided but prospered. True, more often than not it denotes mere adequacy. All correct? Correctness is rarely what people care about nowadays; we want to be dazzled, impressed.
But when you comfort a crying child, that’s what you say: It’s okay. Because whatever is in the child’s mind at that moment is, to him or her, the worst thing in the world. And when we get down to questions of life or death, okay remains the word we most want to hear.