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How to Use the Word OK

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What do you know about the word okay? It seems very simple, but it is actually very complex! Liz Waid and Colin Lowther look at the uses and history of this common word.

Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.

Voice 2 

And I’m Colin Lowther. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

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Voice 1 

Does your language use any English words? Yes? No? Hello? Languages often borrow words from each other. English speakers use many words that have come from other languages. For example, you may hear an English speaker say something like this:

Voice 3 

“I cannot believe I made that faux pas in front of everyone!”

Voice 1 

The words “faux pas” mean a social mistake. They are French. But many English speakers use them.

Voice 2 

Another example is the word “prima donna.” This phrase is Italian. It means “first lady.” English speakers use it to speak about someone who only thinks about themselves.

Voice 1 

Many languages also use English words. For example, they use the words computer, internet and email. However, none of these are the most commonly used English word. Do you know what it is? Okay. Yes, the word is okay. Today’s Spotlight is on the word okay.

Voice 2 

The word okay is an informal, spoken word. You will almost never find it in formal speeches, news media, or books. But it is one of the most common English words. It is also one of the most common English exports from the United States! English professor Allen Metcalfe wrote a book about the word okay. He told CBS News,

Voice 5 

“There is no other word that is as widely recognized throughout the whole world. No other American English word has had so much success like that.”

Voice 1 

In a general way, okay signals approval, acceptance, or agreement. People can use it in many different ways. Here are some ways to use the word okay.

Voice 2 

First, okay can be an adjective or an adverb. It can describe an act or a thing. In this way, it means “all right” or “fine.”

Voice 3 

“Are you okay?”

Voice 2 

Here is another example:

Voice 4 

“I hope the children are okay while we are gone.”

Voice 2 

It can also mean fine, but not so great.

Voice 3 

“Did you enjoy the dinner last night?”

Voice 4 

“It was okay.”

Voice 1 

Okay can also be an act or a thing – a verb or a noun.

Voice 3 

“Did your boss give you the time off that you asked for?”

Voice 4 

“Yes, she okayed it.”

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Voice 2 

Okay is also common as an interjection. It can appear suddenly, on its own. In this way, it can simply mean “yes” or “sure.”

Voice 3 

“Can you please wash those dishes?”

Voice 4 

“Okay.”

Voice 1 

Or it can signal that people need to attend.

Voice 3 

“Okay. Time to begin, please.”

Voice 2 

It can also mean “enough!”

Voice 4 

“OKAY! Please stop now!”

Voice 2 

Okay, we are done with this part anyway.

Voice 1 

You have already heard how many different meanings the word okay has. But did you know that the meaning also changes depending on how you say it? The tone of a person’s voice makes a difference. The meaning can change no matter how you use it. For example, the sentence “It was okay” could be positive or negative.

Voice 3 

“How was the show?”

Voice 4 

“It was okay.”

Voice 1 

What do you think this person meant? What about this next example?

Voice 3 

“How was the show?”

Voice 4 

“It was okay!”

Voice 2 

The first answer says that the person was not really satisfied, but he could not think of something bad to say. The second answer says that the person was satisfied. A person’s tone also changes the meaning of the word okay as an interjection.

Voice 4 

“I think we should visit your brother tonight. Okay?”

Voice 3 

“Okay.”

Voice 2 

The first person used okay to ask for agreement. The second person used okay to express questioning, or doubt. Okay is a small word, but it has many different uses!

Voice 1 

So where did this confusing, complex word come from? People debate the origin of the word okay. The earliest record in print was in 1839 in the city of Boston. At the time, it was popular to use groups of letters to signal words. It was also common to spell the words incorrectly, using the wrong letters, as a joke. A Boston newspaper used the letters “O” and “K” to mean “oll korrect.” The O meant “all”, and the K meant “correct”.

Voice 2 

Around the same time, US President Martin Van Buren began to use the word. He was the president, and he was trying to get elected again. His political party used the saying, “Vote for OK.” Van Buren was from a town in New York called Kinderhook. In this case, he used the letters OK to mean “Old Kinderhook.” The saying tried to give the message that Old Kinderhook was “all correct.” Van Buren lost the election. But many language experts think that the election saying helped to make “OK” a common word.

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Voice 1 

This explanation may also explain the unusual spelling of the word okay. People can write okay in two ways. They can write the word using just the letters “O” and “K”. Or they can write it this way: o-k-a-y. And both ways are correct!

Voice 2 

Other language experts think the word has a Native American origin. The Choctaw people are one of many Native American groups. The Choctaw language has a word “okeh.” This word means “it is so.” This is almost the same meaning as today’s word “okay.” As early as 1825, Christian Bible translators used “okeh” in their Choctaw Bible translations. In the 20th century, US President Woodrow Wilson used the Choctaw language to sign documents as “okeh.”

Voice 1 

Other language experts say that okay came from West Africa. Some West African languages have interjection words that sound similar to okay. For example, the word “waw-kay” in the Bantu and Wolof languages, or “o ke” in the Mande language. These words also commonly signal agreement. West African people were brought to the United States as slaves. The theory is that African slaves used these words when speaking English. After a time, the use spread to the rest of the English-speaking population.

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Voice 2 

No one knows which story is true. But today, okay is now one of the most common words in English. People use it all the time, everywhere. Okay is now an international word. But Professor Metcalf believes that it expresses a cultural value of the United States. He told CBS News,

Voice 5 

“It is strong, it is simple. People from the United States do not like complex ways of life. And ‘okay’ is about as short and simple as you can get.”

Voice 1 

OK. So, after hearing this program, are you okay with Spotlight? Or is it just… okay? Can you give your okay to our programs? Or would you use another word? We are okay if you are okay! Okay?

Voice 2 

Do you use the work OK? Do you use words from other languages in your language? Tell us about your experiences. You can email us at contact@spotlightenglish.com. You can also find us on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Jen Hawkins. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.spotlightenglish.com. This program is called, ‘How to Use the Word OK’.

Voice 2 

Visit our website to download our free official app for Android and Apple devices. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:

Do you use the word okay? Try using it in a sentence below!

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8 comments
  • Absolutely yes, Many Arab countries use Okay all time , especially if someone agrees or if you are satisfied or when someone orders his family and friends for example let’s go outside? Ok, let’s go . another example When mother orders his son :‘do your homework? his son replies her : Ok mum.
    Thanks so much for this information about the word of Ok, I like it.

  • I give a lot of okay to your programs. Jen Hawkins said: We are okay if you are okay! Okay? Ok, ok, I too say: I’m okay if you are okay! Okay?

  • I don’t think OK’story that talks it is a wrong spelling of (oll korect) is right, because most popular expression in America previously and nowadays to express about feeling of satisfied is (All Right) not (All correct). Maybe the presedent story is OK but i don’t know ‍♂️

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