OK or Okay? The Right Answer Might Not Seem Okay!

The other day, I was copyediting a story and came to a question of choosing either OK or okay. Which would you have selected?

The word okay has a strange etymology. Most people would probably assume that the word came first and the two-letter abbreviation came second.

That’s the way it usually works: we end up shortening longer words for convenience.

In this case, the word came after the abbreviation. Sort of.

The word dates back to 1839, when a curious linguistic trend was underway: much like today, when text messaging has reduced phrases to abbreviations like LOL or HMU, abbreviations were popular back then. But back then, there were two key differences: for one, there was (obviously) no text messaging to contend with. For another, people liked to make things more complicated by producing abbreviations from words they’d intentionally misspelled.

One popular example was k.g. for the phrase “no go.” The word no was intentionally misspelled as know, so “no go” became “know go” and then, k.g.

The abbreviation o.k. came from the phrase “all correct.” But “all correct was intentionally misspelled as “oll korrect.”

Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Clearly, someone thought they were being clever.

So “oll korrect” fueled the creation of o.k.

Then came the presidential campaign of 1840. Incumbent Martin Van Buren was known as “Old Kinderhook,” a nod to his hometown, the village of Kinderhook, New York.

The growing popularity of o.k. merged with Van Buren’s nickname. Unfortunately for Van Buren, the new word long outlived his political success.

Over time, someone decided that just the initials weren’t dignified enough. The word okay made its debut in 1929, a year that was, financially speaking, definitely not okay.

So should it be OK or okay?

I’ll admit it: when I saw the reporter’s use of OK, I cringed just a bit. “OK” looks fine in an informal setting, but in more formal or professional writing, it looks a bit too informal. But when I corrected it to spell out the word, it was indicated as a possible misspelling.

So I looked it up. And I found this tweet from the Associated Press on its AP Style:

I happen to agree with some of the angry copyeditors who tweeted back to them that the fewer acronyms and apostrophes in one’s writing the better.

But this is how the AP says it should be done, and since AP Style is generally what we follow at the real job, I had to revert (but not “revert back”) to the original choice.

I Ok’d the OK, even though I wasn’t entirely “okay” with the idea.

Which looks better to you in formal writing: OK or okay?

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.