Saturday, March 8, 2008

March 1839 - A Good Month or Just OK?

(My novel, A Difficult Boy, takes place in 1839, so every now and then I like to take a look at what was happening back then. Thought I might share some of my findings.)

Think people in the 1830s didn't LOL or ROTFLOL? Well, okay, they may have done it, but as far as we know, they didn't abbreviate it that way. But netlingo and textspeak are just new twists on an old practice of making shortcuts for popular expressions. In 1839, you might not LOL, but you might call someone TBFTB (Too Big For Their Britches) or SP (Small Potatoes)--or, if you liked them, they'd be OK. Yup, OK. Now there are more theories on where OK came from than there are emoticons ;) {:-O (You can find a list of most of those theories here.) But the OK expert was Dr. Allen Walker Read of Columbia University. In the 1960s, he was determined to track OK to its POB and DOB (Place of Birth and Date of Birth). According to Read, OK first appeared in print on March 23, 1839, in the Boston Morning Post: "He of the Journal...would have the 'contribution box,' et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward." OK was short for "oll korrect"--a deliberately botched spelling of "all correct." Weird? No weirder than "lite" ice cream or Krispy Kreme Donuts. OK got a big boost in 1840 when New York supporters of presidential candidate Martin Van Buren nicknamed him "Old Kinderhook" in honor of his home town and formed an OK Club to back him in the election. Unlike TBFTB, OK survives today.

Want to find out more?
Listen to this NPR story on the origins of OK.
Or read this article about OK from, where you can learn about the origins of other common words and phrases. is the Web page of David Wilton, author of Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends (Oxford University Press, 2004)--a book you might want to check out if you're interested in an entertaining look at where common words and phrases come from.


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