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How the O.K. Corral Got Its Name


(Text taken from the historic display in the O.K. Corral Office Museum.)

The phrase “O.K.”, used to name Tombstone, Arizona’s historic O.K. Corral, had its origins in the Pennsylvania Dutch country of New York State in the mid-1800s. Today, the term appears in many languages, and has become one of the most used phrases in the world. It is even used in computer programs to indicate agreement. Not bad for an idiomatic expression that is over 150 years old and almost disappeared from use.

Originally spelled with periods, this term outlived most similar abbreviations of the era owing to its use in President Martin Van Buren’s 1839 campaign for reelection. During the presidential campaign, candidate Martin Van Buren was supported by a political club in his home town of Old Kinderhook originally called the “Oll Korrect” club. The name was later changed to “Old Kinderhook” and then shortened to “O.K.”. Van Buren was an O.K. Club member, and his supporters used the term as a general descriptive term for their candidate who they saw as “above average” or “outstanding”. The abbreviation proved eminently suitable for political slogans and campaign pins, although Van Buren lost the election.

During the 1830s there was a humoristic fashion in Boston newspapers to reduce a phrase to initials and supply an explanation in parentheses. Sometimes the abbreviations were deliberately misspelled to add to the humor. Opposition newspapers used O.K. in March 1839 as an abbreviation for all correct, the joke being that neither the O nor the K was correct.

Here is how one unhappy opposition newspaper of the time described Van Buren’s O.K. campaign pins:

“frightful letters …… significant of the birth-place of Martin Van Buren, Old Kinderhook, as also the rallying word of the Democracy of the late election, ”all correct” …. Those who wear them should bear in mind that it will require their most strenuous exertions …… to make all things O.K.”

The term then seems to have largely disappeared from use until some time after the Civil War. Eventually it came back into general use, and was thus chosen by John Montgomery to describe his “O.K. Corral, Livery and Feed Stable” which he founded in Tombstone, Arizona in February, 1879.

How should O.K. be written? John Montgomery always used “O.K.” on his Corral’s 1880s signs. Today, however, there are many versions: two capital letters without periods, two capital letters with periods, o-k-a-y, or two small letters with periods. There is also the question of what part of speech O.K. represents: a noun, a verb, an interjection, a complete sentence, or part of another sentence? In fact, the term “O.K.” goes beyond the boundaries of any single grammatical category to encompass a huge range of expressions.