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OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word

Allan Metcalf

(Oxford University Press; US: Nov 2010)

OK—the versatile utterance that dutifully peppers our speech with little fanfare or consideration—is finally getting some respect. The attention is coming from Allan Metcalf, a professor at MacMurray College, a writer on words (including a book on presidential speaking styles), and Executive Secretary of the American Dialect Society.  Subtitled The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, OK wears its heart on its sleeve. Metcalf calls OK “this incomparable expression” and sees “an entire philosophy expressed in two letters.”  Like its namesake, Metcalf’s OK is tiny but powerful, undemanding but multifaceted. It’s more than just all right. 


Part of the good fun of OK is the speculation over its origins. Was it lifted from Choctaw language? Was it someone’s initials, perhaps baker Otto Kimmel who stamped the letters on his vanilla cookies?  It could have come from the rum swilled at the Haitian port of Aux Cayes or the Greek olla kalla, meaning all good. Another interesting option is the Civil War theory, taken from battalions reporting 0 Killed.  Fortunately, in the ‘40s Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read cut the OK BS. After extensive digging, Read found the first print appearance of OK, the proverbial needle in the haystacks. 


The first printed OK is found in the 23 March 1839 edition of the Boston Morning Post.  The father of OK is Post editor Charles Gordon Green who, in keeping with the craze for outlandish abbreviations, used o.k. as a wry initialism for all correct. The butchered English used as a mark for polished copy was too ironic for the newspaperman to resist, and o.k. soon took off.  (Its wrongness amuses on the level of Ralph Wiggum’s “Me fail English?  That’s unpossible.”  And speaking of The Simpsons, Metcalf covers the Ned Flanders’ okely-dokely in a chapter on recent OK iterations.) 


Back in 1839, however, o.k. was just one of hundreds of snappy abbreviations in use. During the presidential race of 1840 OK received the first of many lucky breaks. Martin Van Buren, raised in Kinderhook, NY, became known as Old Kinderhook, O.K. for short. O.K. political clubs sprang up. Van Buren lost the race, but by then O.K. had found a niche in political sloganeering. 


Another presidential OK would add greater prominence to the word.  Andrew Jackson’s political rivals liked to portray him as an illiterate bumpkin. The rumor began that o.k. was Jackson’s creation, used on documents to mean “ole kurrek”. This became a popular story, and by the early 1870s it had spread enough for people to begin using OK with a straight face. OK “had acquired its completely serious function as a mark of approval.” 


Once in circulation, the adaptability of OK ensured its survival.  It can be thought of in almost Darwinian terms.  In the chapter “Aesthetics: The Look and Sound of OK,” Metcalf notes the word’s melding of “ultimate roundness and ultimate angularity.”  OK is also “value-neutral,” not too hot or too cold, a perfect Goldilocks middle ground for day-to-day conversation. OK can be adjective, noun, verb, adverb, or interjection. OK can be a question or an acknowledgement. OK takes on a variety of forms: o.k., OK, AOK, the more respectable “okay,” the hand sign, the okey-dokey of the Roaring Twenties, k for texting. 


Technology and business have also embraced OK. As railroads pushed west so went telegraph lines tapping dots and dashes of Morse code OKs over the expanding frontier. With OK on the front (telegraph) lines of American expansion, the word began to express American attitudes of pragmatism and hard work. It’s no wonder, then, that businesses seeking to promote themselves as all-American would come to use OK in their marketing. OK has even survived the leap into the information age, just click to confirm.


Metcalf has done a remarkable job of imparting the life and times of a word that began as a joke and ended up “the most frequently spoken (or typed) word on the planet.” Touching on its history; its use in politics, literature, and business; its tiny stature and impressive reach; and even how it reflects culture and identity, Metcalf has written an unbelievably OK book.

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