Sunday, October 13, 2013

OK, What's the World's Best Known Word? Okay,That May Be It.

In observance of Columbus Day, The Committee Room asks you to consider how often you say OK. This little Americanism is probably the world's most used word. In OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word Allan Metcalf writes "[T]hese two simple letters (or four, if you use its genteel alter ego okay) anchor our agreements, confirm our understandings, and choreograph the dance of everyday life...OK is the most amazing invention in the history of American English."

Among English speakers, at least, OK's versatility is astounding. It is put to work an adjective ("The council deemed the project OK"), a noun ("The council gave its OK to the project"), a verb ("The council OK'd the project"), occasionally as an adverb ("The council took the criticism OK"), and most frequently as a throat clearing interjection ("The council member began the discussion with 'OK, let's talk about the project'"). Depending upon tone and context OK can convey a positive or neutral assessment. Partnered with a minimizer as such "just" or "only" or "merely" it becomes negative.

"Old Kinderhook" Martin Van Buren
(Image courtesy of the White House)
Misconceptions abound as to the origins of this linguistic workhorse. Metcalf, an English professor whose research expands upon the work of the late scholar Allen Walker Read, outlines some well-circulated false sources including the Native American Choctaw language, the Dutch language, Civil War era biscuits from the O. Kendall and Sons bakery, and an especially skillful telegraph operator named Oscar Kent.

Metcalf says that OK almost certainly originated in a series of jokey articles about an "Anti-Bell-Ringing Society" published in the Boston Morning Post in 1839. Employing a style of humor that is complicated and unfunny to us today, the articles deliberately misspell the abbreviation for "all correct" as "O.K." supposedly for "oll korrect." The Boston paper was following a fad for abbreviations. "O.W". for "oll wright" was already in use.

The O.K. joke was picked up by other newspapers around the country and incorporated into the 1840 presidential campaign where it received a variety of new meanings including "Old Klay" for Whig Senator Henry Clay and "Old Kinderhook" for President Martin Van Buren. So called OK Clubs were set up in New York City in support of the Democrat Van Buren whose Hudson River Valley hometown was Kinderhook.

O.K. Corral, Tombstone, Arizona Territory, 1882.
Van Buren and the Democratic Party was under the shadow of Van Buren's predecessor Andrew Jackson whose backwoods origins and lack of formal education had long been the butt of jokes. An anti-Jackson (and therefore anti-Van Buren) article in the New York Morning Journal  in 1840 claimed that Jackson, while serving as Chief Executive, signed off on official papers with "O.K." meaning "ole kurrek." The Jackson story was widely reprinted and, though clearly intended as a joke, was widely accepted as truth. Metcalf says that without the Jackson story endowing OK with an amusing and historically anchored source, albeit a false one, OK would likely have faded away.

A novel that makes unusually
frequent use of OK.
By the mid-nineteenth century telegraph messages and railroad communications made regular use of OK. OK, which was in its early decades almost always presented as the initials O.K., also began to be used for commercial purposes such as the popular Pyle's O.K. Soap and, perhaps most famously, the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory.

Metcalf notes that despite its widespread use in American English from the mid-nineteenth century onward, OK was slow to find its way into American literature. "Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Horatio Alger, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, and Henry Adams were born in the 1830s and would have had the opportunity to encounter OK from their childhood. Nevertheless, they avoided OK. It doesn't appear even in the dialect humor of Twain and Harte," Metcalf writes.

By the early twentieth century, OK had lost its positive connotations and was mainly known by its neutral sense. This led to the development of cheerier variations such as "okey-dokey." Also by the twentieth century OK began to show up in literature. It appears, for example, at least occasionally in the works of Sinclair Lewis, Ring Lardner,and William Faulkner.

Even today, however, OK -- or okay, to use the more common contemporary spelling -- isn't used anywhere near as often in fiction as it is in real life. Metcalf suggests that OK "is just OK, not much of a spicy ingredient for crackling dialogue."  An exception is Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, a bleak tale of a father and son in a post-apocalypse world, the dialogue of which is loaded with "okay." Metcalf adds that "OK seems suited to the end of the world, at least in McCarthy's vision, as it faces from gray to black."

According to Metcalf, the variant "A-OK" was introduced by spokesmen for the U.S. space program at the time of Alan Shepard's flight into space in 1961. By some measurements OK was the first word spoken on the moon. Transcripts of conversations reveal that astronaut Buzz Aldrin said "OK. Engine stop" just as the lunar module fully touched down on the moon's surface in 1969.

The use of OK to mean a kind of tolerant acceptance began with Thomas A Harris' pop psychology classic I'm OK, You're OK, first published in 1967 and a bestseller in the early 1970s."There's a lot of room for imperfection in OK while still being on the right side," Metcalf writes in regard to the flexibility and vagueness of OK making it the perfect word for Harris' positive yet non-judgmental message.

The Committee Room.  Time Spent with TCR is Never Wasted.