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Those Ubiquitous Initials and the American Presidency

5 August 2009
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O.K., OK, okeh, and okay are just a few of the different spellings for a word that has as many different meanings as it does spellings.  When used as an adjective it is used to denote acceptability, "This is okay to pass."  When used as an interjection, it can denote compliance, "Okay, I will do that", and agreement, "Okay, sounds good."  When used as a noun or a verb it denotes assent, "The senate okayed the proposal".  Other than the common colloquialisms we refer the word to mean today, "O.K." has a unique lineage that dates back to several presidencies.

Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States, talked up his hometown Kinderhook, NY so persistently that his political colleagues called him Old Kinderhook.  Van Buren's nickname, Old Kinderhook, is often linked to the Americanism, O.K.  Van Buren cheerfully embraced this nickname and at some point took to signing letters by the initials of "O.K."  His presidential slogan, "Vote for OK" was also much snappier than his Dutch name.  Either way, O.K. had staying power as an expression but his presidential slogan was soon trodden by William Henry Harrison campaign's song, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", which spoiled Van Buren's bid for re-election in 1841.

In 1790 there was a discrepancy over the word's first usage when Andrew Jackson signed a court record, ending with the initials O.K.  However, the record was hand written rather than printed, and so what Jackson meant to sign was O.R., "Ordered Recorded", and not O.K.

Allen Walker Read, former linguistics professor at Columbia University, published a series of essays in American Speech that details the history of the word from its apparent birth in Boston in 1839, to its "boost" from the Van Buren re-election campaign in 1840.  The first known published appearance with its current meaning of "ok--all correct" came in The Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839.  This first appearance came at a time when initials, preferably of misspelled words, like ''oll korrect,'' were the fad.  ''K.Y.'' meant ''no use'' (''know yuse''), but for whatever reason did not catch on.  Abbreviations and acronyms are still used today.  "ASAP", "FYI", and "TTYL" to name a few, are some of today's most popular.

-Caitlin Huey, Membership Intern

Related tags: blog, presidents

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