Like all words which began life as slang, etymologists aren’t sure exactly how “OK” came to be added to the language. One leading contender dates back to Martin Van Buren (1782-1862,) our eighth president.
Van Buren was born into a Dutch-speaking household in Old Kinderhook, NY. Kinderhook, located roughly about 20 miles south of Albany, is Dutch for “children’s corner,” and was named by explorer Henry Hudson, who first discovered it in 1609.
By the time Van Buren was born, on Dec 5, 1782, the area’s apples had developed a reputation for being superior, and eventually became known as OK apples (for Old Kinderhook.) Martin studied law, and at age 18 he served as a delegate to the Democratic-Republican Party convention in Troy, New York, later serving in New York’s state senate, and later still, as governor. He was a strong supporter of Andrew Jackson, who appointed him Secretary of State in 1829. Correspondingly, Van Buren resigned his governorship.
But there was a scandal brewing, and to keep Jackson’s arch-enemy, South Carolinian John C. Calhoun from causing a constitutional crisis, Van Buren, though blameless, was caught in the middle and resigned as Secretary of State.
This was an 1829–1831 scandal involving members of Andrew Jackson’s cabinet and their wives. Led by Floride Calhoun (1792-1866,) wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun (1782-1850,) these women (the “petticoats”) socially ostracized John Eaton, the Secretary of War, and his wife Peggy over disapproval of the circumstances surrounding their marriage and what they considered her failure to meet the moral standards of a cabinet wife.
Margaret (Peggy) O’Neal (1799-1879) was a well-educated, legendary beauty who spoke fluent French and played acceptable piano. She was also not above a bit of casual flirting, and when she was 17, she married a man who turned out to be an alcoholic and heavily in debt. Peggy and John Eaton began a casual friendship, which may or may not have blossomed into something else, when her husband died unexpectedly.
The rumormongers went right to work, claiming that he’d killed himself from grief over the reported affair. (Later exams by specialists concluded he died of pneumonia after contracting a bronchial infection.)
With the encouragement of President Jackson, who liked them both, Peggy and Eaton married on January 1, 1829, way too short a time for mourning, according to the petticoats. Worse still, Peggy spoke her mind, even on subjects that, as a woman, she was not supposed to know anything about. Naturally, in order to maintain the high standard of morality set by the petticoats, she, (and, of course, her husband,) had to be shunned.
Van Buren, who also liked both of them, was caught between the factions. After he resigned as Secretary of State, Jackson used a recess appointment to immediately declare him be the Ambassador to the Court of St. James. His appointment was rejected in the senate shortly afterward, generally blamed (again) on John C. Calhoun, who believed that Van Buren had attempted to keep him from becoming vice president in the election of 1824 by making overtures to Henry Clay. Calhoun was elated, convinced that he had ended Van Buren’s career for good. “It will kill him dead, sir, kill him dead. He will never kick, sir, never kick,” Calhoun exclaimed to a friend.
Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who had heard the boast, responded, “You have broken a minister and made a vice president.”
And that’s exactly what happened. In 1832, the ticket of Jackson/Van Buren made it to the highest offices in the land.
Jackson didn’t run in 1836, and threw his support to Van Buren. By then, Van Buren was widely known as “Old Kinderhook,” and sometimes signaled his assent on documents by informally signing them “OK.” In support of Van Buren’s 1840 reelection campaign, the New York Equal Rights Democrats formed the O.K. Democratic Club. The cry “O.K.,” indicating enthusiastic approval of Old Kinderhook, soon began to resound at rallies, and the letters O.K. became common on placards and in political cartoons.”
“Foreign coverage of the campaign, which included reproductions of the cartoons, soon spread OK through Europe and Latin America as a formula of approval.
Although Van Buren lost the 1849 election to William Henry “Tippecanoe” Harrison, his signature OK spread to become adapted into practically every language on earth. OK is the most widely diffused word in history, perhaps rivaled only by Coca-Cola.