Okay crops up a lot in fiction writing, particularly in dialogue and first-person narrative. Where does it come from, and how should it be spelled?

Origin of ‘Okay’

Many etymologies have been suggested over the years for okay; almost every historical conjunction of the letters O and K (or their corresponding syllables) seems to have been presented as a possible origin for the word. The Greeks, the Choctaw Indians, the Finns, the Germans, the Scottish (“och aye”) and many others have all had the greasy finger of amateur etymology pointed in their direction.

The most widely accepted theory comes from the lexicographer and (professional) etymologist Allen Walker Read. His research showed that OK—in its short form—first cropped up in a Boston newspaper in 1839. At the time, there was a fashion for comical misspellings, and this first appearance of OK stood for “Orl Korrect”.

A year later, President Martin Van Buren’s reelection campaign picked up on this usage. Born in Kinderhook, Van Buren’s nickname was “Old Kinderhook”; his supporters spotted the opportunity, and urged people to vote for OK. (He lost the election.)

A second theory that’s worth mentioning suggests that the word comes from the African language Wolof, which had an impact on English primarily through slavery. In Wolof, the word waw-kay means something like “yes, indeed”, and this word shows signs of usage in English dating back to the eighteenth century. This is a convincing argument for the origin of okay, and its lack of acceptance compared to the “Orl Korrect” theory may simply be down to a lack of written evidence tracing this evolution. (Slaves didn’t write for newspapers.)

Edit: for more on the Choctaw theory, see comments below.

Usage

People generally seem to write Okay in one of four ways, of which only the first two are valid:

  • okay - correct
  • OK - correct, but see note below
  • Okay - incorrect (the first letter should only be capitalised at the beginning of a sentence)
  • O.K. - incorrect (no need for the points)

There’s no fixed rule as to whether you should use OK or okay in your writing. It’s a matter of personal style (although it may well get overridden by a publisher’s house style). Personally, I prefer okay. It looks more like a word, so it’s less jarring on the page.

(OK would also be incorrect—or very informal—usage if the African origin theory is true; in this case, OK would be a false acronym, a simple phonetic shortening of the correct okay.)