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“OK,” Is This Borrowed From the Greek Language, Too?

OK word
“OK,” Is This Borrowed From the Greek Language, Too? credit: Maximilian Schonherr CC BY-SA 3.0

Ok, or okay, is one of the most frequently used words in the English language, but does it have a Greek origin?

One theory on the etymology of OK is that it was originally an acronym for the Greek phrase “óla kalá” (όλα καλά), meaning “all good.”

Theories on OK’s origin

The theory that OK is of Greek origin was discussed in the April 1942 edition of American Speech. American Speech is a quarterly academic journal focusing on linguistics and language.

In the article, the academic Robert Weber explored a number of possible theories for the origin of the commonly used acronym. Weber referred to another academic, Robert C. McClelland, who likewise explored the word’s roots in the October 1933 edition of The Classical Journal.

McClelland came across the book, When I was a Boy in Greece, by George Demetrios, published in 1913. Demetrios’ explanation was that the acronym, OK, had been used by Greek teachers to positively mark the work of their students since ancient times.

In the preface to the book, Demetrios wrote “I gave him the final manuscript to see if I had been faithful to my task, and after re-reading it, the boy pronounced it όλα καλά (ola kala).”

“The first letters of the two words have been used from time immemorial by Greek teachers to mark the deserving themes of their pupils, and we who so generally write ‘O.K.’ to denote accuracy assign many fanciful reasons for the origin of the expression, not knowing that it is really classical,” the passage continues.

Hence, according to Demetrios, ancient Greek teachers may very well have inscribed the acronym “OK” on the work of deserving students. Aristotle, upon seeing the work of the young Alexander the Great may have marked his papers with the same acronym.

McClelland was not sure what to make of Demetrios’ claim. He wrote, “I have not verified the authenticity of the statement.” In fact, neither McClelland nor Weber settled on a firm theory for the origin of the word OK.

Aristotle and Alexander the Great
According to one theory, “OK” might have been used as an acronym by ancient Greek teachers to mark the work of their students. Credit: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris / Public domain / via Wikimedia Commons

Other theories

Many other theories exist for the etymology of the word OK. In the 1960s, Allen Walker Read theorized that OK was one of many acronyms initially introduced to American English in the early or mid-19th century when there was a fad for abbreviating words.

Another theory is that the Democrat Party ran with OK as an acronym for “Old Kinderhook” during the 1840 presidential election. “Old Kinderhook” was a nickname for the Democrat candidate, Martin Van Buren.

The Democrats hoped that “Vote for OK” would resonate with voters more than his name of Dutch origin. If this theory is true, they may have succeeded in creating a new word, but they failed to win the election.

However, the newspaper of the era ‘Boston Morning Post’ writes that the term comes from the misspelling ‘Oll Korrect’ (instead of the correct ‘All Correct’).

The influence of Greek on the English language

Whether OK really was originally an acronym for óla kalá may never be known. However, what is certain is that the Greek language has had a profound effect on the English lexicon.

In the comedy movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the character Gus insists that every word in the English language has a Greek origin. This is a reoccurring joke throughout the film. Yet, this joke does have a basis in reality. Over sixty percent of words in the English language have Greek or Latin roots.

This figure is even higher at about ninety percent in vocabulary associated with science and technology. In total, over 150,000 English words have been borrowed from Greek. Six to fifteen percent of English words are directly borrowed from Greek, according to estimates.

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