What’s America’s greatest word? It’s OK, says Allan Metcalfe, English professor at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, and author of OK, the Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. He says it was invented in the 1830s in a humorous newspaper column, and quickly caught on.
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“Within a decade, people actually began writing OK on documents and on papers. They began sending OK on the telegraph to confirm the accuracy or receipt of a message. And so from about 1850 on, OK had this workaday use, and has remained even till the present day,” he said. Its use spread across the English-speaking world and is widely used in other languages. Its meaning is agreement, with no further connotation. As a question, it means do you understand, or do you agree. As an adjective, it means acceptable. As a noun, it means approval – all with no strings attached in terms of the strength or intensity of something’s acceptability, or someone’s agreement or approval.
OK appeared in print on March 23, 1839, in the Boston Morning Post. Metcalfe says OK derives from a fad for comical abbreviations that flourished in the 1830s and 1840s. The abbreviation in this case is from the misspelled “oll korrect.”