Why Do You Say OK? And How To Use OK In Fluent English
Summary: Speak English Fluently
Why do you say OK? If you want to speak fluent English you will want to know a little more about OK. So why not listen to this Adept English FREE “Listen & learn“ podcast to find out more.
Did you know OK is not really a word and yet it’s probably the most used expression in the world let alone the English language? In today’s podcast we talk about OKs history, how intonation can change OKs meaning in English, OKs spellings (yes that‘s right you can spell it differently!) We also look at some less common options for OKs origin and the most popular OK origin story.
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Audio Transcript: Why Do You Say OK? And How To Use OK In Fluent English
Hi there and welcome to Adept English and our Monday podcast. We are here to help you with your English language learning and specifically, to help you to understand and speak English fluently. Now you may notice that this is our 200th podcast. 200 podcasts! Oh my goodness, what a lot of English learning material for you!
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An Interesting Question?
Now, have you ever wondered where the saying OK comes from? My 10 year old son is a really good source of ideas for our podcasts – and he asked me this question earlier this week. OK is an expression, we can’t really call it a word as it’s two capital letters – O and K. But its use is pretty universal. OK is understood all around the world. In fact, it’s been said that OK is the most frequently used expression in the world! So O-K, capital O, capital K. There is another way of spelling it – you can spell it O-K-A-Y too. But have you ever thought about why we say ‘OK’? Where it comes from?
OK is Everywhere!
We use it in all kinds of contexts. It’s used usually in informal, rather than formal language and it’s used in speech much more than written language. So if you want to speak English fluently, you’ll use the word OK. You’ll find it all over the place actually written, in emails and text messages, of course. But you probably wouldn’t find OK used in say, a translation of the Bible or any other religious text. You wouldn’t find it in a fiction book, a novel, unless it was somebody speaking, unless it was said by one of the characters in the book. But it’s used all the time on your computer, your phone – or even the remote control for your television is quite likely to have an ‘OK’ button, or on your printer, there might be an ‘OK’ button.
The Meaning Depends on the Way You Say It
When people ask how we are, we might reply ‘I’m OK’. ‘How did it go?’ ‘It was OK’. Or we might say ‘Yes, I’m OK with that, but I’m not OK with this’ - which implies that something has our agreement and something else doesn’t. Often it’s the intonation, the way we use our voice when we say OK, that gives its meaning. We might say ‘Oh, it was OK!’ or ‘Uh, it was OK….’ So the listener knows what sort of OK from the way that you say it. So if I say ‘It was OK’ - it sounds as though I thought it was going to be bad, but it was better than I thought. And if I said ‘It was OK’ - that makes it sound as though it wasn’t as good as I thought it might be. But OK usually means something is at least ‘satisfactory’ or ‘good enough’. So again, when you’re learning to speak English fluently, sometimes there are words like OK, which can mean different things, depending on how you say them.
So OK has been adopted in many different languages – it may already be used in your language. Perhaps it is the most internationally recognised word that there is. But where does it come from?
What are the Origins of OK – Other Languages?
Well, there are various theories – various suggestions and ideas about this. Some seem a bit unlikely, but still interesting. Scottish people, they might say ‘Och aye’, to mean ‘Yes’ or that they agree. ‘Och aye’ - I can’t do a Scottish accent, but ‘Och Aye’ is spelt O-C-H space A-Y-E – so potentially OK comes from Scottish English! That’s what they mean when they say ‘Och Aye’. Another explanation is that it comes from the Greek όλα καλά (óla kalá), (hola cal-aah) meaning "all good”. Sorry to anyone who’s Greek about my bad accent there, but hopefully you recognise that phrase, όλα καλά (óla kalá). But if either of these explanations is true, it’s still not clear how OK would’ve spread and became common across all the world.
Origins of OK in the US
Instead it seems fairly certain that the term OK originated in America, in the US. Growing use of the term OK in the 1800s has been documented, has been written about, and this was before OK became widely known and used in any other country. So we think that OK was first used in American English. But even here, it’s still not clear how OK originated. Native Americans, or American Indians were the people who lived in America before white people came and took it over – think of Big Chief Sitting Bull or Haiwatha or Pocohontas? There was a group of American Indians called the Choctaw Indians. And the Choctaw Indians had a word in their language Okeh – spelt O-K-E-H. Maybe this is how it came into popular use in US English – from Native American language?
Another theory - many Africans were taken from their native lands to America as part of the slave trade – a very bad part of history, of course. Something we wish hadn’t happened. A slave, S-L-A-V-E means someone who has been taken against their will, and who is made to work for another person, owned by another person, even. One human being can never own another – but of course, this is what happened in the 1800s. Many of the Africans who became slaves in America spoke African Bantu languages. And in Bantu, they used the word ‘Wawe-kaye’ to mean OK. Again, forgive my pronunciation, if you know that word. So was this word taken gradually into US English to mean OK? We don’t know. So it’s possible OK came from Native Americans - or that it came from an African language. As both Native Americans and Native Africans were forced into a situation where they learned to speak English fluently, some mixing of the languages sounds quite likely.
But there are other possible explanations too. When I was a child, and I asked this question ‘Why do we say OK?’, I was told that it stood for ‘Oll Korrekt’ and that this was how sailors on board ships in the 19th century labelled goods, labelled their cargo as having been checked. It was OK, it was ‘all correct’. But if you’re wondering about the spelling here – surely ‘all correct’ should be ‘AC’, not ‘OK’? ‘AC’ because ‘All Correct’ - A-L-L C-O-R-R-E-C-T. But, no. They’re spelling ‘all correct’ as O-L-L K-O-R-R-E-K-T! Now this was because sailors had a limited level of education and they couldn’t spell very well – or was it a joke originally? A purposeful misspelling, just for amusement? It’s not clear, but apparently that’s what people used to do. They used to think it was funny to misspell things. So did OK come from Africa or did it come from native Americans or was it a joke? It’s clear nobody actually knows. So you might not need to know the history, in order to be able to speak English fluently, but I bet you will think of this spelling, Oll Korrekt, O-L-L K-O-R-R-E-K-T from now on, when you use the expression OK!
How a Presidential Election Campaign may have influenced the rise of OK
There’s another piece of American history, which may account at least for the rise in popularity of the saying OK. The theory goes that ‘Oll Korrekt’ as a comic misspelling, humour, was already popular in the US, before 1840. But then came the 1840 presidential election – the vote to determine the next president. (Imagine the 1840 version of the battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton!). The Democratic candidate in 1840, Martin von Buren came from a place called Kinderhook, which is a town in New York state. So his nickname – and a nickname is a jokey, familiar name – his nickname became ‘Old Kinderhook’, which was abbreviated to OK. So it’s likely that OK was already a phrase before this presidential campaign, but they used it to say ‘Vote OK’! So a nice, short phrase, which meant ‘Vote for Martin Von Buren’. And ‘Vote OK’- this is a good choice! So perhaps it became more popular because of this. However, having ‘Vote OK’ as part of his presidential campaign didn’t work! Martin Van Buren didn’t win the 1840 election, although he had previously been president since 1837.
So OK is one of the words that you will certainly meet in conversation and which you yourself use, if you want to speak English fluently. We might not know for sure what its origin is, but I think ‘OK’ is here to stay. It’s not an expression that’s going to fall out of use any time soon.
OK. Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.
PS: Thank You To All Our Listeners
You might also have noticed that today is Adept English 200th podcast, which is a lot of FREE English listening & learning material. So thank you to our loyal listeners who are “Listening & learning.” their way to fluent English. Adept English have every intention of making another 200 podcasts until everyone who wants to learn to speak English can without being bored by traditional learning.
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