The origins of 10-4 and ‘ok’

Ruth Griffiths

The dispatcher responded “10-4” to the bus driver. 

I’ve known that is radio talk for “message received,” or “understood,” but I wondered where this code originated.

10-4 is one of a group of “10 codes” that are used by radio operators as a shorthand for common phrases. The codes  first reached public recognition in the 1950s through the popular television series Highway Patrol.

10-1 meant “Receiving poorly,”

10-2 meant “Receiving well,”

10-3 was for “Stop transmitting,”

10-4 signaled “Acknowledgement,”

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OK (sometimes written okay) is another shorthand phrase that has spread throughout many languages, but appears to have originated in the United States.

OK’s origins are disputed; however, many linguists think it originated in Boston as a joke or part of a fad for misspelling in the late 1830s. The first appearance of the word OK took place on March 23, 1839.

It all began in the office of Charles Gordon Greene at the Boston Morning Post. The trend for humours misspelling produced many unsuccessful terms such as OW — an OK-like term for “oll wright” (all right). Apparently OW wasn’t all right!

OK first appeared as an abbreviation for “oll korrect,” printed in a satirical article about grammar.

The word’s origins were revealed in the 1960s when etymologist Allen Read did some digging — through suggestions that the word might come from Europe, a Civil War nickname for biscuits, or an abbreviation for the telegraph term Open Key. Still others falsely thought that president Martin Van Buren had invented the term in his presidential campaign, which used the slogan “Vote for OK” in reference to both his hometown and his nickname, Old Kinderhook. But Van Buren only popularized the term, not invented it.

Read showed “how, stage by stage, OK was spread throughout North America and the world to the moon, and then took on its new form AOK, first used by space people.”

However some doubters continue to insist that the word in fact has a much earlier origin. We’ll just have to be OK with never knowing for absolute sure. OK?

Source: Smithsonian Magazine