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OK by me

Nineteenth-century American humor relied heavily on misspelling. As literacy became widespread, it was inevitable that skill in reading and writing would become markers of social class and background. Bad spellers in journalism and literature, usually rustics, provided a somewhat-better-educated middle class with amusement and a confirmation of their own superior status.

It is to this tradition that we owe the most substantial American contribution to the English language, the English word most universally understood and used: OK.

In OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word (Oxford University Press, 210 pages, $18.95), Allan Metcalf, the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, traces this universal word from its truly improbable beginnings to its current, equally improbable, status.

The origins of the word were documented half a century ago by the indefatigable Allen Walker Read of Columbia University. OK originated during a craze for abbreviations in Boston journalism, appearing for the first time ever in the March 23, 1839, edition of the Boston Morning Post as an abbreviation for all correct, understood as being spelled oll korrect.*

A couple of coincidences brought the fanciful abbreviation into common use. In the loony presidential campaign of 1840, Martin Van Buren’s partisans tried to counter William Henry Harrison’s popular appeal by referring to Van Buren as “Old Kinderhook,” from his family estate. Subsequently, Andrew Jackson’s political enemies, seeking to portray him as a backwoods illiterate, spread word that he initialed official documents with “O.K.,” for “oll korrect.”**

The word caught on, shedding over time its comic beginnings and becoming a widespread neutral affirmation.

So far, Professor Metcalf treads the ground pioneered by Professor Read, but he moves on to contemporary terrain, tracing its development in literature, business, and everyday speech. And its worldwide scope. OK—noun, verb, adjective, adverb, interjection—is understood by speakers of “Dutch, German, Swedish, Polish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Welsh, Hebrew, Korean, and Japanese, among many others ... with pronunciations adapted to their languages.”

It has become a useful, neutral term—indicating things that are not superior, not inferior, but just, you know, OK. Good enough. Serviceable.

It is, he suggests, a characteristically American term, representative of a pragmatic attitude toward life. And, extrapolating from the popularity of the transactional analysis catchphrase “I’m OK—you’re OK,” he argues that it represents a “two-letter American philosophy of tolerance, even admiration, for difference.” Bear with me; he has a point: “At the start of the 1960s in the United States, law and custom were quite different from what they are today. Discrimination against minorities and women was not only widely practiced but widely accepted. Today acceptance and even affirmation of differences have become pervasive, in law as well as in practice, and those values persist despite the encouragement to xenophobia caused by the threat of terrorism.” OK is “a mantra of tolerance and acceptance unprecedented in our history.”

I’m OK with that, and so should you be. Have a look at Professor Metcalf’s book yourself. It’s worth your time.

 

*There is a word, for which I am debt to Professor Metcalf, for bad spelling: cacography.

**There was not a shred of accuracy in the report, but it came to be widely believed, much as the “birther” nonsense has gained currency in our supposedly more sophisticated era.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:02 AM | | Comments (9)
        

Comments

Well, a shred; Jackson, while sitting on the Tennessee Supreme Court, apparently did scribble "O.R." on court papers, meaning "order recorded". His handwriting was such that "O.R." could be misread as "O.K."

i'm one of those eastern elites (Nova Scotia counts as east, right?) who more often than not writes okay rather than OK. I think it's just a dislike for extra upper case letters in news columns...

I thought it had its roots in military jargon. It stood for a successful mission. Zero killed. 0K.

Don't forget that even the OED cites the Choctaw "okaheh," which is even used the same way. I'll be interested to see that book and what it says about that. For now, I don't know of any examples before contact of the invaders with the Choctaw. It's a fascinating topic.

Notwithstanding that I agree with you on the point: the parting shot at birthers was unnecessary, digressive, and distracting, and you would have done far better to not include it.

Don't forget the hand signal for OK that easily simulates the letters and is also almost universally recognized. Without this easily understood nonverbal OK would its usage have spread so far?

Scott - that would be the universally recognised gesture for OK that is seen as offensive around the Mediterranean, right?

Scott - In France, the hand signal to which you refer means something is terrible, definitely NOT OK. Your're giving something a rating of Zero if you make that gesture.

I just added your web page to my favorites. I like reading your posts. Thanks!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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