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FWIW, OK Once Made People LOL

Written By Jack Budington

January 27, 2022

I’m OK with modern terms like TBH, LOL, and OG. Yes, in some contexts they look odd and out of place, and many people want to relegate them to texting and social media platforms, but let me assure you they’re here to stay. And oddly enough, they have a far less absurd history than the ubiquitous word OK.

OK is one of the most versatile words in spoken English. It can affirm: “OK, let’s do this!” Or express doubt: “OK … where are you going with this?” It can be an adjective, an interjection, or a passive aggressive response to a very long text: “K.” You might assume that such an important part of our vocabulary must have ancient origins. Yet neither Shakespeare nor George Washington would have had any idea what you meant by OK.

Old Kinderhook himself, Martin Van Buren

OK dates from the 1830s and was originally considered east coast urban slang. It was an abbreviation of the phrase, “all correct,” which first appeared in a Boston newspaper in 1839. More precisely, OK is an abbreviation of “oll korrect,” a parody misspelling by east coast city-dwellers on how someone from rural farm country might spell the word. That’s right—this common word we still use today originated as a joke.

This popular 1830s slight on rural intellect didn’t end with OK. Merriam Webster cites KY for “know yuse” (no use) and OW for “oll wright” (all right). Yet, while these other slang spellings disappeared after a few decades, OK became a core part of the English vocabulary. And for that, we can credit Martin Van Buren.

When Van Buren ran for reelection in 1840, many referred to him as “Old Kinderhook” after his hometown of Kinderhook, New York. Due to the obvious double meaning of the word OK and the abbreviation of his hometown, his campaigners embraced the slang of the day to proclaim “Old Kinderhook is Oll Korrect.” And while Van Buren’s campaign went down in flames, the widespread use of OK as a political campaign slogan was likely what elevated the word from the 19th century equivalent of a meme to a bonafide word in the dictionary. 

Political cartoon that ran during Martin Van Buren’s 1840 US Presidential election campaign.

One of the greatest strengths of written languages is their ability to evolve. So while you might receive customer testimonials that leave you ROFL, give pause before editing these acronyms away for marketing. In the end, they bring an individual voice to your brand that will help prospects connect with you on a more human level.

And in my opinion, that’s more than OK.