Okay has become one of the more versatile words in the English Language—as used today, it can mean everything from “just fantastic” to ”out of bodily danger.” But in its early days, the standby was just a dumb joke.
As Allan Metcalf details in OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, okay made its first printed appearance in the March 23, 1839 issue of the Boston Morning Post, as part of a playful diatribe directed at a rival paper, the Providence Journal. After quoting the Journal’s description of an outing by the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, the Post critiqued their account as follows (emphasis ours):
“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.”
There is robust scholarly debate over the spoken origins of the word—different theories trace it back to Greek, Scottish, Choctaw, Wolof, or Mandingo, all of which contain similar-sounding words to express correctness or agreement.
But this Post article is generally accepted as the first time it made the leap to print. Though not immediately clear from the context (as The Paris Review puts it, “not many vestiges of this sort of early-nineteenth-century American wit have survived the ages”), the joke is that “o.k.” is supposed to stand for “all correct”—which, of course, it does not, strictly speaking.
Except that now, after 177 years, it does. Well done, okay. You’re fine by us.
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Update, 3/24: This story has been updated to include information about the first spoken uses of okay.