If I told you that your great-great-great-great grandkids might still be saying  “LOL” or “spilling the tea” in conversation two hundred years from now, would you believe me? As odd as it sounds, that’s exactly the case for one of the most commonly used words today! OK, get ready to have a little more fun talking every day after you hear this quirky origin story.

Younger generations making language their own is nothing new. While you may cringe when they say “word,” “sweet,” or “totally tubular,” this same imaginative wordplay created an acronym that you say probably every single day. OK—ready to find out what it is?

Image: three older people sitting on a bench, two women chatting, one man reading a book with speech bubbles that have teenage slang from a range of time!

Source: Pixabay (with edits)

Why we say “OK” so much!

Let’s head back to the 1830s with a group of young, educated elites in the US. For some reason, one of their favorite things to do was intentionally misspell abbreviations, developing their own vernacular to exclude everyone who wasn’t “in the know.”

One of these intentional misspellings was the phrase “All Correct”—which they changed to “Oll Korrect,” then abbreviated. When a Boston newspaper picked up on the insider phrase and symbol of class, they used it as a corny joke and made it known to all, starting its global spread! The word I’m talking about? One you likely use daily: OK.

Other abbreviations existed at the time too: “KG” stood for “know go,” which was a poor spelling of “no go,” and “OW” stood for “oll wright,” a twist on “all right.” While those jokes don’t seem funny to me in the slightest, in the 1800s they were LOL hilarious. 1

Unlike “KG” or “OW,” “OK” had some staying power. Here’s the fun video from Vox to explain how a corny joke from two hundred years ago has persisted into the modern age!

Via: Vox 2

Make sure to check out Vox on their YouTube channel for more amazing and insightful content!

Well, there you have it! Imagine if we were all walking around saying “AC” or “KY” the way we say “OK.” Seems odd, right?

Each generation fosters the ideas of the next (or even the next five)!

Our language is always changing, reflecting who we are at a certain time. So, what if we thought of the small and silly things we do nowadays as just as valid parts of language? “OK” started as a corny joke—a bad one that even appeared in the Slang Dictionary of Vulgar Words in 1864 3—but today it’s a completely legitimate word. It’s even in the dictionary. So why are “JK” or “YOLO” not considered just as valid? Do they not share a similar origin, face the same skepticism, and yet persist anyway? These acronyms, it seems, must all do their time as “vulgar slang” before they’re adopted into everyday language.

And what other weird words do we say today that might have two hundred years’ worth of staying power?

Will “send it,” “lit,” or “salty” persist? Or what about the acronyms “OMG,” “IDK,” “DIY,” JK,” or “TMI”? Need I go on? There are plenty of acronyms and slang these days—more than ever with the influence of text messaging and the internet—and it’s fun to think that some of them might still be hanging around in the 2200s.

OK isn’t the only one!

OK was able to make the crossover from slang into legitimate, functional use, and there are some other words and phrases I’d bet you use often that have similar origins. We have Shakespeare to thank for words like “swagger,” “hurry,” and “laughable,” 4 or phrases like “break the ice”, “wild goose chase” and “heart on your sleeve.” 5 When we consider the history of the words we use regularly, we gain a new appreciation for our languages, and can even catch a glimpse of some real wonder from things that seem—at first glance—everyday and ordinary!

Granted, “OK” had the perfect conditions to spread: a noticeable letter “K,” good timing with the invention of the telegraph, a US President making it a cornerstone of their campaign… It begs the question, what things might be prevalent in society today if they had just had the right conditions, the right person, and the right technology to survive and persist? And what things will have those conditions, people, and technology to last hundreds of years into the future?

It’s true, OK was in the right place at the right time. It went global when “global” was first starting to exist!

It’s fun to think about how the little things we say or joke about matter and could perhaps outlast everyone here. Think about your next joke or acronym in this context, and perhaps it could make you smile to think of that great-great-great-great-grandchild using “LOL” or “OMG” in their everyday lives without a second thought.

This conversation reminds me of the ponderings of a Reddit user that I saw years ago, that goes something like this:

“When people talk about traveling to the past, they worry about radically changing the present by doing something small, but barely anyone in the present thinks that doing something small can radically change the future.”

So make that joke! Spread that slang! Have fun with language! And who knows, it might just still be around two hundred years from now.

  • Ellen

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Notes:

  1. Klein, Christopher. “The Birth of OK, 175 Years Ago.” HISTORY, HISTORY, 21 Mar. 2014, www.history.com/news/the-birth-of-ok-175-years-ago. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  2. Vox. “Why We Say ‘OK.’” YouTube, 12 Sept. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UnIDL-eHOs&list=WL&index=10. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  3. Klein, Christopher. “The Birth of OK, 175 Years Ago.” HISTORY, HISTORY, 21 Mar. 2014, www.history.com/news/the-birth-of-ok-175-years-ago. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  4. SalterNet. “10 WORDS SHAKESPEARE INVENTED (Now You Know #6).” YouTube, 31 July 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjqbY4uJjTA. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.
  5. Özkan Yaren. “Everyday Terms Coined by Shakespeare.” YouTube, 19 Nov. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBMc8qJItkw. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021.

Ellen Allerton

Sponsorship Coordinator

After graduating from St. Lawrence University in 2020 and returning home to Vermont, Ellen found that helping make the world a better place with the EWC team was just where she wanted to be. You can usually find her watching television while getting crafty, on the ice as a figure skating coach for 10-14 year old's, or in her inflatable kayak named Heidi. She’s quite the film nerd and quite the cook, and likes it best when those two things—movies and food—coincide.