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What's the Real Origin of "OK"?

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"OK" is the all-purpose American expression that became an all-purpose English expression that became an all-purpose expression in dozens of other languages. It can be an enthusiastic cheer (A parking spot! OK!), an unenthusiastic "meh" (How was the movie? It was…OK.), a way to draw attention to a topic shift (OK. Here's the next thing we need to do), or a number of other really useful things. It's amazing that we ever got along without it at all. But we did. Until 1839.

There may be more stories about the origin of "OK" than there are uses for it: it comes from the Haitian port "Aux Cayes," from Louisiana French au quai, from a Puerto Rican rum labeled "Aux Quais," from German alles korrekt or Ober-Kommando, from Chocktaw okeh, from Scots och aye, from Wolof waw kay, from Greek olla kalla, from Latin omnes korrecta. Other stories attribute it to bakers stamping their initials on biscuits, or shipbuilders marking wood for "outer keel," or Civil War soldiers carrying signs for "zero killed."

The truth about OK, as Allan Metcalf, the author of OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word, puts it, is that it was "born as a lame joke perpetrated by a newspaper editor in 1839." This is not just Metcalf's opinion or a half remembered story he once heard, as most OK stories are. His book is based in the thorough scholarship of Allen Walker Read, a Columbia professor who for years scoured historical sources for evidence about OK, and published his findings in a series of journal articles in 1963 to 1964.

It started with a joke

OK, here's the story. On Saturday, March 23, 1839, the editor of the Boston Morning Post published a humorous article about a satirical organization called the "Anti-Bell Ringing Society " in which he wrote:

The "Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells," is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have his "contribution box," et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.

It wasn't as strange as it might seem for the author to coin OK as an abbreviation for "all correct." There was a fashion then for playful abbreviations like i.s.b.d (it shall be done), r.t.b.s (remains to be seen), and s.p. (small potatoes). They were the early ancestors of OMG, LOL, and tl;dr. A twist on the trend was to base the abbreviations on alternate spellings or misspellings, so "no go" was k.g. (know go) and "all right" was o.w. (oll write). So it wasn't so surprising for someone come up with o.k. for oll korrect. What is surprising is that it ended up sticking around for so long while the other abbreviations faded away.

Then it got lucky

OK got lucky by hitting the contentious presidential election jackpot. During the 1840 election the "oll korrect" OK merged with Martin van Buren's nickname, Old Kinderhook, when some van Buren supporters formed the O.K. Club. After the club got into a few tussles with Harrison supporters, OK got mixed up with slandering and sloganeering. It meant out of kash, out of karacter, orful katastrophe, orfully confused, all kwarrelling or any other apt phrase a pundit could come up with. It also got mixed up with the popular pastime of making fun of van Buren's predecessor, Andrew Jackson, for his poor spelling. One paper published a half-serious claim that OK originated with Jackson using it as a mark for "all correct" (ole kurrek) on papers he had inspected.

OK was the "misunderestimated," "refudiated," and "binders full of women" of its day, and it may have ended up with the same transitory fate if not for the fact that at the very same time, the telegraph was coming into use, and OK was there, a handy abbreviation, ready to be of service. By the 1870s it had become the standard way for telegraph operators to acknowledge receiving a transmission, and it was well on its way to becoming the greatest American word.

But, as Metcalf says, its ultimate success may have depended on "the almost universal amnesia about the true origins of OK that took place early in the twentieth century. With the source of OK forgotten, each ethnic group and tribe could claim the honor of having ushered it into being from an expression in their native language." By forgetting where OK came from, we made it belong to us all.

This Big Question came from Emerson Whitney, who inquired about the history of OK via Twitter.

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Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
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On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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