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OK: How Two Letters Made 'America's Greatest Word'

OK, it's quiz time: You probably say it dozens of times every day. It may be the most widely used expression in the world. And yet it's so simple.

OK, ready for the answer?

That's it -- the word "OK."

Allan Metcalf is so enthralled by those two letters that he's written an entire book about them: OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word.

Metcalf tells NPR's Guy Raz that he sifted through a handful of conflicting stories and discovered the birthplace of "OK" -- a 19th century Boston newsroom.

All Correct

It started one day in 1839, when a few newspaper editors were joking around.

"They had a lot of abbreviations that they were using and made up on the spot and thought they were terrifically funny," Metcalf says. "And OK was an abbreviation for 'All Correct.' "

Now most of those jokey abbreviations faded blissfully into history. But OK's star was rising -- thanks in part to President Martin Van Buren's re-election campaign in 1840.

The mutton-chopped incumbent hailed from the town of Kinderhook, N.Y.

"He got the nickname Old Kinderhook, and early in 1840, OK clubs sprung up with the slogan, 'OK is OK.' So taking that funny little word and making it a mainstay of the political conversation in 1840, suddenly OK was way OK," the author says.

Unfortunately for Van Buren, though, the election didn't turn out OK -- he got drubbed by William Henry Harrison.

The man Van Buren succeeded as president, Andrew Jackson, even got roped into the "OK" story -- because of a campaign dirty trick, Metcalf says.

"One of Martin Van Buren's opponents who also opposed Jackson because they both were Democrats, claimed that Andrew Jackson had been a terrible speller, and so he would get a document and when he approved it he would write O period K period on it indicating that it was all correct."

Even though the story wasn't true -- Metcalf says Jackson was actually quite a good speller -- it stuck. And within the next two decades someone else began writing OK on documents as a sign of approval.

Soon, OK was being used for the telegraph, like an early form of the LOLs and OMGs we send in text messages today.

But Is OK OK?

In the 19th century OK was popular, but top authors like Mark Twain and Bret Harte avoided using the word in their works.

"Louisa May Alcott used OK once in Little Women, and in the next edition of that she changed OK to 'cozy' ... like 'I'm cozy with that,' instead of 'I'm OK with that' -- which indicates there was something uncomfortable about it."

And the word continued to struggle for elite acceptance -- until Woodrow Wilson, the only president to earn a Ph.D., gave his stamp of approval.

"He thought it had really come from a Choctaw Indian word, which he spelled 'okeh,' which was their equivalent of something like OK," Metcalf says.

The American Philosophy Of OK

One reason OK is so important, Metcalf argues, is because it embodies  America's can-do philosophy in just two letters.

"If something's OK, that's OK, it'll work, maybe it's not perfect but it'll work, and that's an American attitude."

He points out that the word is also about acceptance. Just look at the best-selling self-help book from the 1960s, I'm OK, You're OK, by Thomas Harris.

"Based on that I'm OK, you can be different from me and that's OK, I think our country is a lot more tolerant now than it used to be."

Metcalf says OK may be the most important American word, and we should celebrate it.

"I'm creating 'OK Day,' and the nice thing is on OK Day I'd like everyone to go around saying OK, and I'm sure that they will because they say OK every day."

Mark it down on your calendars: March 23, 2011, will be the first-ever OK Day -- 162 years to the day since those two little letters were printed together in the Boston Morning Post.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.