Numerous explanations for the origin of the expression have been suggested, but few have been discussed seriously by linguists. The following proposals have found mainstream recognition.
The etymology that most reference works provide today is based on a survey of the word's
The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 … OFM, "our first men," and used expressions like NG, "no go," GT, "gone to Texas," and SP, "small potatoes." Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of OK was OW, "oll wright."
The general fad is speculated to have existed in spoken or informal written U.S. English for a decade or more before its appearance in newspapers. OK's original presentation as "all correct" was later varied with spellings such as "Oll Korrect" or even "Ole Kurreck".
The term appears to have achieved national prominence in 1840, when supporters of the
Read proposed an etymology of "OK" in "Old Kinderhook" in 1941. The evidence presented in that article was somewhat sparse, and the connection to "Oll Korrect" not fully elucidated. Various challenges to the etymology were presented; e.g., Heflin's 1962 article. However, Read's landmark 1963–1964 papers silenced most of the skepticism. Read's etymology gained immediate acceptance, and is now offered without reservation in most dictionaries. Read himself was nevertheless open to evaluating alternative explanations:
Some believe that the Boston newspaper's reference to OK may not be the earliest. Some are attracted to the claim that it is of American-Indian origin. There is an Indian word, okeh, used as an affirmative reply to a question. Mr Read treated such doubting calmly. “Nothing is absolute,” he once wrote, “nothing is forever.”
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The earliest written evidence for the Choctaw word "okeh" is provided in work by the missionaries
Byington's Dictionary of the Choctaw Language confirms the ubiquity of the "okeh" particle, and his Grammar of the Choctaw Language notes the particle -keh is an "affirmative contradistinctive", with the "distinctive" o- prefix.
Subsequent Choctaw spelling books de-emphasized the spellings lists in favor of straight prose, and they made use of the particle[,] but they too never included it in the word lists or discussed it directly. The presumption was that the use of particle "oke" or "hoke" was so common and self-evident as to preclude any need for explanation or discussion for either its Choctaw or non-Choctaw readership.
The Choctaw language was one of the languages spoken at this time in the South-Eastern United States by a tribe with significant contact with African slaves. The major language of trade in this area,
Arguments for a more Southern origin for the word note the tendency of English to adopt loan words in
A verifiable early written attestation of the particle 'kay' is from transcription by Smyth (1784) of a North Carolina slave not wanting to be flogged by a European visiting America:
Kay, massa, you just leave me, me sit here, great fish jump up into da canoe, here he be, massa, fine fish, massa; me den very grad; den me sit very still, until another great fish jump into de canoe;...— 
David Dalby first made the claim that the particle "OK" could have African origins in the 1969 Hans Wolff Memorial Lecture. His argument was reprinted in various newspaper articles between 1969 and 1971. This suggestion has also been mentioned more recently by Joseph Holloway, who argued in the 1993 book The African Heritage of American English (co-written with a retired missionary) that various West African languages have near-homophone discourse markers with meanings such as "yes indeed" or which serve as part of the
A large number of origins have been proposed. Some of them are thought to fall into the category of