This one has generated *lots* of folklore. The following list of suggested origins and info comes from MEU2, from Eric Partridge's _Dictionary of Historical Slang_ (1972 edition, Penguin, 0-14-081046-X), and from Cecil Adams' _More of the Straight Dope_ (Ballantine, 1988, ISBN 0-345-34145-2). Thanks to Jeremy Smith for his help. The abbreviations on cracker boxes, shipping crates, cargoes of rum, et al., became synonymous with quality. "Oll korrect, popularized by Old Kinderhook" is what's given in most up-to-date dictionaries. The earliest known citation is from the Boston Morning Post of 23 March 1839: " [...] he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have the 'contributions box,' et ceteras, o.k. -- all correct -- and cause the corks to fly." This was a facetious suggestion by a Boston editor that a Providence editor (the Journal mentioned was in Providence) sponsor a party. American "O.K.", abbreviation of Obadiah Kelly, a shipping agent American "O.K.", abbreviation of Old Keokuk, a Sac Indian chief American "O.K.", contraction of "oll korrect". This was the choice of a British judiciary committee that investigated the matter for a 1935 court case (MEU2), and was further documented by Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read in "The Evidence on 'O.K.', _Saturday Review of Literature_, 19 July 1941. A vogue for comically misspelled abbreviations began in Boston in the summer of 1838, and spread to New York and New Orleans in 1839. They used "K.G." for "know go", "K.Y." for "know yuse", "N.S." for "nuff said", and "O.K." for "oll korrect". American "O.K.", abbreviation of Orrins-Kendall crackers American "O.K.", abbreviation of Otto Kaiser, American industrialist American "O.K. Club". "O.K." gained national currency in 1840 as the slogan of the "O.K. club", a club of supporters of then President Martin Van Buren, in allusion to his nickname, "Old Kinderhook" -- Van Buren was born in the village of Kinderhook, N.Y. Choctaw _(h)oke_ = "it is so" English opposite of "K.O." ("knock out") English "of Katmandu" English "open key" English "optical kleptomaniac" English "our kind" Ewe (West African) Finnish _oikea_ French _Aux Cayes_, a place in Haiti noted for excellence of its rum French _aux quais_, stencilled on Puerto Rican rum specially selected for export German _ordnungsgemaess kontrolliert_ "properly checked" German letters of rank appended to signature of Oberkommandant Greek _olla kalla_ = "all good" Latin _omnia correcta_ = "all correct" Mandingo (West African) = _o ke_ "that's it", "all right" Occitan _oc_ = "yes" (Occitan or Langue d'Oc is so called because it uses _oc_ where French uses _oui_.) Scots _och aye!_ "oh yes" Tewa _oh-ka(n)_ = "come here", "all right" Wolof (West African) "waw kay" = "yes indeed". Supported by Prof. J. Weisenfeld, professor of African and African-American religion at Columbia University. It was shown by Dr Davis Dalby ("The Etymology of O.K.", The Times, 14 January 1971) that similar expressions were used very early in the 19th century by Negroes of Jamaica, Surinam, and South Carolina: a Jamaican planter's diary of 1816 records a Negro as saying "Oh ki, massa, doctor no need be fright, we no want to hurt him." The use of "kay" alone is recorded in the speech of black Americans as far back as 1776; significantly, the emergence of O.K. among white Americans dates from a period when refugees from southern slavery were arriving in the north. Queried about the Dalby citations, Merriam-Webster Editorial Department told me: "A word pronounced approximately 'kai' is an expression of surprise or amusement in Jamaican Creole and in Sea Islands Creole (Gullah). If you take into account the pronunciation and meaning, you'll see that it does not fit 'okay' either semantically or phonetically. There is nothing in the history of 'O.K.' or 'okay' that suggests it has an African-American origin."
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