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Double Trouble: The Origin of “OK”

One U.S. President has a double dose of party trivia. OK, let’s start with this teaser. Who was the first president born in the United States?

Here’s a hint. It’s none of the names that likely come to mind. Washington? Nope. How about Jefferson? Not him, either. Madison? Good guess, but … nah. And it wasn’t John Adams either. Then, it must be John Quincy Adams. Wrong again. That’s OK; most people get this question wrong if they hurry to the more obvious answers.

The first president born in the United States

The answer is … the 8th president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, who reigned, sorry, represented American Citizens from 1837 to 1841.

OK, it was a bit of a trick question. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison were born in Virginia. John and John Quincy Adams were both born in Massachusetts. So, what’s the problem?

When all five of them were born, along with James Monroe and Andrew Jackson, the United States didn’t exist. That didn’t happen until July 4, 1776, when the colonies severed ties with Great Britain.

So, Martin Van Buren was the first President who was actually born “in” the United States.

OK, what else?

If you’re tuned in to frivolous word games, you might have noticed we’ve used the term “OK” a lot in this article—with good reason.

You see, Martin Van Buren, in addition to being the original American President, is credited, at least partially, with the now universal term “OK.” His birthplace of Kinderhook, New York, and over time, folks started using the friendly nickname of “Old Kinderhook.” Hold that thought.

In 1839, the Boston Morning Post published an article dissing another paper, and in the text, wrote an abbreviation of “o.k.” near the article’s use of the phrase “all correct.” Back at that time, people apparently found humor in deliberately misspelled words and resulting abbreviations. Perhaps the “o.k.” initials referred to “oll korrect” or something along those lines.

Fast forward to 1840, when Van Burn was running for reelection. As they always do in presidential election campaigns, things got ugly, and Team William Henry Harrison began to bandy about less-than-flattering names for Van Buren. In response, Van Buren’s campaign strategists started using the “O.K.” phrase, already starting to gain some traction as a play on both the “Old Kinderhook” nickname and the “oll korrect” joke from the Boston Morning Post article.

Nothing creates momentum like a presidential campaign, so the term “OK” took off, meaning then, as it does today, everything is hunky dory.

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