Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

OK in War and Urban Myth

Michel Delaye today asked about an explanation of OK that has been floating around for a long time. Michel wrote:

“I’ve been told an other story [about OK]: during the War between the States, OK was written for 0 (zero) K(illed)on the daily casualty report. I’d be pleased to have your opinion on this unusual explanation.”

This story is what we call a linguistic “urban myth”. It seems to make sense but has a fatal flaw: the first published instance of “OK” appeared in 1839, 22 years before the Civil War began. Moreover, words always circulate several years before they are published.

OKThis explanation is in a class with the tale that posh oritinated from a stamp on first-class tickets from England to India and stood for “port out starboard home”. Apparently, the right side of the ship was out of the morning sun on the way to India and the left side, on the return trip. The problem with this story is that even though many such tickets have been preserved, none contain any such stamp or lettering and no other printed evidence of this abbreviation has been found.

One other linguistic myth you might encounter is the claim that the English adjective gaudy is an eponym of the Spanish architect Atoni Gaudi. Again, the problem is timing: the English adjective gaudy has been in print since 1540 and it appears in the Canterbury Tales (ca 1386) with a different meaning.

Always come to Dr. Goodword for your etymologies.

2 Responses to “OK in War and Urban Myth”

  1. Matthew Says:

    The main explanation for OK that I have seen, which The Phrase Finder says was confirmed by Professor Allen Walker Read, is that it came from “Oll Korrect,” a comic version of “All Correct.”

  2. rbeard Says:


    You should subscribe to our Good Word series. Click “OK” in this post and it will take you to an example which should have a link to the registration page. This is the same explanation I give. In fact, it is the one everyone gives since Mr. Read, whom I acknowledge in my Good Word essaylet, made the case for it.

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