No one knows how the expression OK came into being. The most commonly accepted explanation is almost certainly that it comes from the initials of "Old Kinderhook," which was Martin Van Buren's nickname. Van Buren, our eighth President, was born in Kinderhook, N.Y., about 20 miles south of Albany. Old Kinderhook was the sort of nickname that caught on 150 years ago.
Old Kinderhook's presidential predecessor was none other than Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson. For better or worse, we've left that practice in the dust of history. I doubt that anyone ever contemplated "Old Yorba Linda" for Richard Nixon, or even "Old Hyde Park" for F.D.R.
There was an O.K. Club formed in support of Van Buren, and Webster's New International, 2nd Edition gives the O.K. Club credit for the expression OK . The Random House Dictionary agrees that the expression is "prob. after the O.K. Club formed in 1840 by partisans of Martin Van Buren, who allegedly named their organization in allusion to 'Old Kinderhook,' his birthplace being Kinderhook, New York."
I'm skeptical. It doesn't seem reasonable to me that a political organization of 1840, supporting a presidential nickname, would become an international term signifying all right. I accept the possibility of almost anything; nevertheless, I'm skeptical.
Evidently the Random House people are skeptical, too. After crediting the O.K. Club, they say, "but cf. also the Bostonian phrase all correct ." Webster's 3rd Edition doesn't even mention Van Buren and Kinderhook. It says of OK: "abbr. of oll korrect , alter. of all correct ." Why is all correct called a Bostonian phrase by the Random House gang? I wonder. The form oll korrect doesn't split our sides today, but it was probably pretty funny back in those early times, long before the "Tonight Show" started raising our risibilities quotient.
Jeff Williamson of Sherman Oaks has what I think is a new and genuinely fascinating theory of OK's beginnings. He thinks it might stem from the old French word oc , as in langue d'oc. Oc meant yes in the south of France a few centuries ago, whereas in the North, yes was oil (Note: In all cases, that i in oil has a two-dot umlaut over it.), so they had the langue d'oc in the South and the langue d'oil in the North. In time, the royal line had its way, and oui, which had developed from oil , emerged as the French affirmative.
This is pure conjecture, of course, but suppose that among the early white settlers of that area of the American Northeast were some Frenchmen who still used oc for yes. That's possible, I think. Samuel de Champlain and his men were prominent in the New York-New England territory in the 17th Century. If many of them still spoke in the langue d'oc, it could have been a subject of mild controversy or perhaps raillery. If there had been a verb meaning "to use oc ," the infinitive form would almost certainly have been oquer, pronounced "okay."
Regarding the O.K. Club theory, Williamson says, "The making of political hay from those initials would have made sense only if the term okay were already in vogue."
If oquer was heard commonly for "to say yes ," Voila! We have the term okay already in vogue, ready to be used as political hay and locked into place by Old Kinderhook and the O.K. Club.