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John Montgomery had a barn, stables and blacksmith shop in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. He named his outdoor horse pen the O.K. Corral*, never knowing it would become the historical site where Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers shot it out with Ike and Billy Clanton and their gang of desperados**. Few know that the gunfight did not take place in the O.K. Corral itself, but in a narrow vacant lot next to C.S. Fly’s Boarding House and Photography Studio, where Doc Holliday rented a room. To this day, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is reenacted daily in the Streets of Tombstone Theater.

Writing in Smithsonian Magazine, Rachel Nuwer says O.K. traces its roots back to Boston in 1839. Back in those days, people were into wacky abbreviations. Humorists playing at being uneducated rubes would deliberately misspell words for fun. O.K. was these wordniks’ abbreviation for “Oll Korrect,” a small play on words where the words ‘all’ and ‘correct’ were deliberately misspelled, just like O.W. was Oll Write, and K.G. was Know Go.

Phrases.org.uk says O.K. has lots of origin stories, including:

  • Orin Kendall biscuits, the kind soldiers ate during the Civil War that are also called hardtack.
  • Zero Killed when World War One soldiers reported the day’s death toll: 0 K.
  • Obadiah Kelly, a freight agent who signed his bills of lading O.K. 
  • Onslow and Kilbracken, two members of the House of Parliament who initialed bills approved by the House of Lords with the letters O.K.
  • The Observatory at Kew used the initials O.K. to signify instruments that had been tested and deemed by them to be authentic.
  • Aux quais, in French, is pronounced as O.K., and means safely tied up at a pier in the harbor.
Many of these explanations are little more than coincidences

Most are retrofitted rationales, a common occurrence when people seek to explain where words came from. These backronyms are words chosen to represent letters rather than the other way around.

Martin van Buren

With a year of the newspaper people’s whimsical invention of Oll Korrect, Martin van Buren was running for the office of the president of the United States. Van Buren’s knickname was Old Kinderhook and some of his supporters formed the O.K. Club. This kept O.K. in the public eye until telegraph operators started using OK to mean Open Key, a signal that indicates “ready to receive.”

The Merriam Webster dictionary says the definitive text on the term is the book OK: The Improbable Story of the World’s Greatest Word. Among other things, the author tells us that O.K. is the most frequently used word on the planet. 

O.K. is one of very few words that started as an abbreviation and ended up becoming a word

Our first known adoption of the word okay was in 1868 by Louisa May Alcott, who wrote in Little Women “One of us must marry well. Meg didn’t, Jo won’t, Beth can’t, so I shall make everything okay all around.” To further confuse the issue, forty years later, president Woodrow Wilson used a different spelling that was also pronounced OK. Some said that version came from the Choctaw word okeh, meaning it is so.

*There have been eight movies about the O.K. Corral: Frontier Marshall, The Town Too Tough to Die, My Darling Clementine, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Hour of the Gun, Doc, Tombstone, and Wyatt Earp. 

**Speaking of Desperados, which one did you like best? The original version recorded by the Eagles or Linda Ronstadt’s version? How about the version by Linda with the Eagles?

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