We’re OK, A-OK.

1024px-OK-button_-_Macro_photography_of_a_remote_controlOne of the most useful words you can learn in English is “OK” (also spelled “okay”). It can be used for many things.

It is probably used most often to mean agreement – that you agree with someone:

Jeff: Let’s leave work early today and not tell the boss.
Lucy: OK!

It’s also used to acknowledge that you heard or understood something:

Jeff: We’ll need to record 60 more scripts before the end of the day.
Lucy: OK.

In one of its most confusing usages, OK can indicate the quality of something. It can be used to mean that something is good enough or acceptable.

Lucy: This cheese is old, but there isn’t much mold (furry green and black stuff that grows on old food) on it. I think it’s OK to eat.
Jeff: I think I’m going somewhere else for lunch.

Or, in contrast, it is used to say that something is just so-so or not very good in quality, something mediocre. When used in this way, we often include the word “just” before it.

Lucy: What do you think of my singing?
Jeff: It’s just OK. You might consider taking up (starting as a hobby) dance instead.

There are even more ways to use OK, but these are perhaps the most common.

Considering how much Americans rely on the word “OK,” it’s surprising how much disagreement there is on its origin (where it came from). In fact, there are many theories (explanations or guesses based on information), and some people think we still don’t know. But one man spent many years trying to find out and thought he found the answer.

Allen Read, who died in 2002, was an English professor at Columbia University in New York City. He studied the English language for over 30 years, and while he wrote and published several books and many articles about many different aspects of American English, he always returned to the question of where “OK” got its start.

Some people believed that the term OK came from the name of a brand of cracker (thin, crisp food usually eaten with cheese or other foods) the U.S. government supplied (gave) to the Union or northern soldiers during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Others believed that it came from the name of a key (something you press on a machine so something will happen) – called an “Open Key” – on a telegraph machine, a machine used in the old days to send messages through wire. Both of these explanations were possible, in Read’s view, but then he came across (found) an even earlier mention of OK.

In an 1839 Boston newspaper, Morning Post, Read saw a satirical article about bad spelling. (Satire is the use of humor to show people’s mistakes or stupidity). “OK” was used in the phrase “Oll Korrect,” a misspelling of “All Correct.” Read believed that he had found the first use of OK and published an article in 1964 about his discovery.

Incidentally (in addition, although it is not directly related to what I’ve just said), you may also hear the term “A-OK.” A-OK means everything is fine, conditions are good, or there are no problems. This version of OK was first used by people involved in the space program (program for space travel), but became more generally used over time. Today, while it’s not very common in daily conversation, you may still hear it used occasionally.

OK, that’s all I have to say about “OK.” I hope that was an OK explanation and that you’re all A-OK!

– Lucy

Photo Credit: from Wikipedia

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12 Responses to We’re OK, A-OK.

  1. Dan says:

    Hi Lucy,

    Looking at a video online on the subject I have heard an explanation by a professor that I like.

    Here it is: “It’s simple. Americans do not like complicated philosophies or ways of life…OK is short and simple as you can get.”

    I like that. It is a word widely used in Italy as well. As other stuff from the US,I believe it was introduced by US troops after WWII.

    I use it all the time.


  2. emiliano says:

    Dear Lucy, that´s O.K., but here in Spain, as we use to be so different from the rest of the world, the word used here instead of O.K.
    it is “VALE”.
    Vale, it has the same meaning that O.K., so vale, it is a nice post.


  3. lili:) says:

    Thank you Dear Lucy,

    This is so good! I’m more than OK (adjective, means happy) with your OK (noun) lesson.

    We use ‘OK’ all the time in Hong Kong. Do they use ‘OK’ in Taiwan and Mainland China a lot like we do in Hong Kong? I don’t know.

    We like ‘OK’ so much that we called the convenience-store chain Circle K shops in Hong Kong “OK” because there is a circle around the K.

    Anyway, Lucy I am very happy to discover so much in your article. I learned about Allen Read from your link and I trust that his surname “Read” gives away the type of family he came from. He was born into a family that read all the time. That’s why he’s so clever.

    Oh no, wait a minute, very sorry Lucy, I discovered either the Internet has got Allen Reed’s surname wrong and called him ‘Allen Read’; or you remembered ‘Allen Reed’ so well that you have decided to call ‘Allen Read’ ‘Allen Reed’. Or, it was not your choice, but ‘Read’ and ‘Reed’ are interchangeable?

    I really shouldn’t spend so much time on one word!

    OK, bye now, see you again soon, is it OK?

    Best Regards


    lili–Of course, you’re right that his last name is spelled “Read,” not “Reed.” While “Reed” is a common last name in the U.S., “Read” is not. I’ve corrected the post. Many thanks.–Lucy

  4. Thiago Messias says:

    This is more than ok. this is just AWESOME!

  5. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    OK guys.

  6. Marcos says:

    Hi everyone

    VI Lucy.

    Oops! this is a history day lol So VI ( Very Interesting )

    Nice day to us

  7. peter says:

    Now that i m thinking about it
    Ok is sth of a international word
    I think it is safe to say ,ok has foynd his place in almost every single language out there.
    Supposedly , it is one of the most popular words.
    Presumably , it is first used in U.S.
    I personally think , most people all over the world associate ” ok” with Americans.
    Not with other English speaking country.Canadian sure do.

  8. Tania says:

    Hi! I wish you to be all of us OK at the beginning of this year.
    It is an usual term and in my country even for those that do not know the English language.
    Thank you for the explanation of the phrases “A-OK” and “It’s just OK”.

  9. Tania says:

    Hi! Thank you for the explanation of the phrase “A-OK”.
    Reading “A-OK” , I was thinking about “seven swans a-swimming”,
    seven swans are swimming.

  10. Takayuki says:

    As a Japanese, I think the sound of “ok” is easy to distinguish and mimic.
    Lots of Japanese like me can’t identify short vowels’ sounds of American English really well.
    But this word “ok” has only two long vowels in it, in addition these (long o(ou) and long a(ei)) are completely different from each other.
    It’s really “okey-dokey” for us!

  11. Dima says:

    Thanks for simple and interesting explanation.
    I would add my opinion. Forefinger touching thumb makes figure like ‘O’, and three other fingers like ‘K’. What is common sign in scuba diving.

  12. Moisés says:

    What a funny and interesting post, Lucy! I liked it a lot especially your dialogue with Jeff, and I should say that in Venezuela, the country where I come from, the word OK is broadly used as well. Some time ago I read that OK is the most popular English word across the world, and I think that’s true.

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