Previous: Who Should We Root For?
Next: The Russian Reversal



View count:292,108
Last sync:2023-01-30 19:30
There is literally an entire book about these two letters:

Is OK the most popular word in the world? That depends on how you look at it. It's been argued that it's the most /spoken/ word in the world, but I have to call BS on that. The most spoken word has got to be "the" or "I" or the equivalent in Mandarin.

But Popular is a more subjective measure...and one that I'm choosing because I think that "OK"s adoption as a loanword is so extremely common. Now, there may be words that have been adopted into more languages...I'm thinking of "taxi." But "OK" is adopted for everyday conversational use, whereas "taxi" is only for specific situations. So that's the completely subjective argument I'm using to say that "OK" is the most popular world in the world.

So, something that didn't fit into the video...we think of memes as these new-fangled things, and definitely the way they spread now (and the speed at which they spread) is different, but acronyms from comical mis-spellings indicate that memes have been around for a long time, we just didn't call them memes. And the fact that the Democratic Party latched onto one to try and promote a candidate that had a less-than-american-sounding feels much more 2018 than 1838 to me. Van Buren was actually the first president who wasn't of British ancestry (or British himself) which was a big deal at the time.

Another thing I didn't get into the video...the creation of OK a little bit depended on our society becoming more text-based and literate. Telegrams helped this, but newspapers did as well. The extent to which these technologies revolutionized our society and our ability to communicate fast and wide is really hard to understand now, but is maybe the kind of thing we should be thinking about as our own world is being revolutionized by new communication technologies. We don't know, ultimately, what the affect will be. But they will be long-ranging and maybe invisible, just as OK has been for the last 175 years.

Subscribe to our newsletter!
And join the community at
Help transcribe videos -
John's twitter -
John's tumblr -
Hank's twitter -
Hank's tumblr -
Good morning, John. OK. That's a weird word, by which I mean "OK." OK means like fine, good, satisfactory, approved; none of those words even have k's in them. There aren't any words that are just capital letters. This isn't normal, and yet OK is possibly the most spoken word on the planet; not because we say it a lot in the US, which we do, but also because we say it a lot everywhere. So many other languages have been like, yeah, actually, that one- that one's good we'll take that. So from Mandarin to Hebrew to Flemish to Russian to Indian to Portugese, OK is a ... OK! It's a common, affirmative word.

What does OK even mean? It's like you want to approve of something, but not a lot. Finally we have a word for good, without all the "good" tied up in it. Like if I fall down, you say "Are you okay?" All you're really asking is, "Is there something wrong?" It's like an acceptance without any values or perspective or opinions laid on top of it. And I want that. I can just be OK, and that's OK. Where did it actually come from though? Allow me to introduce you to the only Wikipedia page that is a list of potential etymologies for a word, and it's very long. 

Maybe it comes from "Och Aye" the, like, Scottish "oh, yes." Or from the Greek phrase "Ola Kala" meaning "all good," maybe. But etymologists and historians have settled on three prime theories. We'll get to the most settled-upon one last, but let's start with a West African origin, thus brought to the US by slaves.

A 1784 verified use of the word " 'kay" rather than "okay" is a transcription of something a slave said in North Carolina. And this may come from a common West African phrase "O Ke" or "Waw Kay" depending on the language, that's basically an affirmative or a back-channel. A back-channel is what linguists call that thing that you do where you make a noise or you say a phrase or a word just to let somebody know that you understood what they said. And among the many uses for the word "okay" remains back-channeling. Like you're on the phone and you're like, "Okay. Uh-huh. Yup. M-hm. Okay." Like that.

Second, the Choctaw word "Okeh" which maybe was also somewhat similar in other Native American languages, and from what I can tell, this is not particularly easy to translate, but probably it means something to the effect of "it is so," and is also, apparently, sometimes used as a back-channel, weirdly enough. 

The definite thing that we do know is when it entered into the popular lexicon of average Americans as the letter "O" and the letter "K." In the late 1830s there was this weird fad for comically misspelling things in newspapers? I don't know. And then you would take those common misspellings and create acronyms from them, like another example of a similar word was O.W. which was for "Oll Wright." Later they had "Oll Korrect," O.K. Fuh!

Now this, like all of the other weird comical misspelling acronyms, would have been completely forgotten if not for Martin Van Buren? The Democratic party decided to, like, take this weird OK meme and apply it to Martin Van Buren, whose name sounded too Dutch I guess. But he was from Kinderhook, New York and they called him Ol' Kinderhook, but that probably also wouldn't have stuck around if people hadn't been looking for ways to save characters on telegrams because you paid by the letter. And then OK continued to trundle down the decades until we got to where we are now. 

For me, the amazing thing about this word is how normal and everyday it is, despite the fact that it is very weird and unusual and we never notice that. And it sort of exists in the background as part of the fabric of culture, not as something that we immediately identify as something we're confused and amazed by. But it is confusing and amazing, and I guess that's OK.

John, I'll see you on Tuesday.