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Is "OK" Okay?

By
Mignon Fogarty

OK or okay

People often assume that it's tough to be my copy editor, but the truth is that I'm pretty easygoing. I almost always accept my copy editors' changes—except when they try to change "OK" to "okay." Then I become a raving maniac. My usual wishy-washy countenance turns to granite.

One of my favorite stories is the origin of "OK," and to me, "OK" is the purer form.

The Origin of OK

"OK" was born in America in the 1830s. Much like the text messaging abbreviations of today, "OK" was an abbreviation for a funny misspelling of "all correct": "oll korrekt." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the "okay" spelling didn’t appear until 1895.

There were other odd abbreviations with similar origins in the same era ("OW" for "oll wright," for example), but Martin Van Buren, whose nickname was Old Kinderhooks because he was born in Kinderhook, NY, adopted the motto "Vote for OK" and called his supporters the "OK Club" in his presidential campaign, and the campaign publicity established "OK" in the American lexicon.

"OK" and "Okay" Are Both OK

The two spellings peacefully coexist today: the Associate Press recommends "OK" and the Chicago Manual of Style recommends "okay." My publisher follows Chicago style for my books, but to honor the word's origins, I insist on "OK" instead of "okay." So far, they have been kind enough to indulge me.

"Okay" Dominates in Fiction, but "OK" Wins Overall

Because "okay" is the form recommended by Chicago, and Chicago is the dominant style guide in the publishing industry, "okay" is the dominant form in fiction, as you can see from the following Google Ngram search that is limited to English fiction:

a Google Ngram showing the the okay spelling is dominant in English fiction

However, when the search is more broad, covering all English in Google Books, "OK" overtook "okay" in 1990.

a Google Ngram showing that OK is the dominant spelling in all English in Google Books

Mignon Fogarty is the author of Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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