Why is "okay" the world's most popular word?

The English word “okay,” or “OK,” which has a variety of meanings centring around "Good " or “Acceptable,” is very likely the world’s most popular word. Originating from sometime in the 1830s from a fad at the time to come up with funny abbreviations from misspelled words, “okay” is now used in more countries than not and is a common word in many, many languages, almost invariably carrying one or more of the same meanings it does in English.


Why did this one word, and not even an old word by English standards, become so popular? Is it because of the way it sounds?

Because it is so useful

I think it’s a combination of utility, easy pronunciation and universal recognition.

Agree, and I’ll speculate US troops in WW II spreading it worldwide were a factor in its universality.

All of the above.

Now, if “Okay/OK” is #1, what’s #2?

I’d vote for a similarly ubiquitous word like “shit” for it’s multiple uses, but there must be one that’s a little more PC. What?

It’s gotta be “like” :slight_smile: Some people use it every other word!

In my travels, “ciao” seems to be another word that’s spread across multiple language barriers, though I have no idea of how widespread it is.

If it’s so useful, why did it take so long to emerge? And it can’t be for its wide recognizability, because that just leaves us a chicken-and-egg problem. I think ZenBeam’s speculation of it being spread by US troops is probably most plausible.

We watch a lot of old European movies. Hello seems the most common word used in many languages to answer the phone in movies. Ciao is common too. A German friend insists it is an affectation introduced in the 70s. I don’t recall OK much in the movies. I will listen for it.

Coincidentally, just read a recent book about just that: OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, by Allan Metcalf.

In my experience very common in Spanish, and scarcely regarded as a foriegn word. It’s usually spelled chao.

I thought it wasn’t a foreign word? What language is “ciao” from, then?



This Languagelog post might be of interest. It doesn’t discuss the reason for its popularity, but it does arge that it has a unique purpose not met by the alternatives (neutral acknowledgement).

Probably whatever the most common word in Mandarin is.

If the most common word in Mandarin is used in no other language, then it is not the #2 word in the sense I was getting at in my OP. By most popular I mean used in the most different living languages.

I’d also suggest that it has to be BORROWED, so no cheating and saying “whatever the Proto-Indo-European word for mommy was.” “Okay” was invented in English and was borrowed in a hundred or more languages; that’s how I’m defining popular.

“Tea” would actually be a pretty popular one, for instance. “Tea” is originally Chinese (not Mandarin) but that word or very close equivalents are used to describe that particular drink in many languages.

And that’s the reason we’ve all gathered here today. Maybe this thread is better suited for IMHO, but for my money, it’s the ease of pronunciation combined with the expansion of U.S. geopolitical and cultural influence in the last century.

Okay, so what does he say is the reason?