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Is this OK?

OK magazineThe BBC magazine has an article about the origins of OK by Allan Metcalfe who, extraordinarily, has managed to squeeze a whole book out of this useful and ubiquitous abbreviation (not Desmond’s ridiculous sleb magazine).

As an analysis, it’s rather undercooked. Metcalfe ponders:

But what makes OK so useful that we incorporate it into so many conversations? It’s not that it was needed to “fill a gap” in any language. Before 1839, English speakers had “yes”, “good”, “fine”, “excellent”, “satisfactory”, and “all right”.

Well, so they did. And they used all of them, even though the shades of meaning between many of them are so slight that even a mantis shrimp would have difficulty discerning them. In a language as promiscuously acquisitive as English, having to “fill a gap” is hardly any kind of criterion for whether a word is adopted or not.

Nonetheless, having posited an non-existent criterion, Metcalfe rushes in to fill it:

What OK provided that the others did not was neutrality, a way to affirm or to express agreement without having to offer an opinion.

Consider this dialogue: “Let’s meet again this afternoon.”

Reply: “OK.”

Compare that with: “Let’s meet again this afternoon.”

Reply: “Wonderful!” or “If we must.”

Well, I beg to differ. Just as OK is grammatically versatile – it can be a noun, adjective, verb or adverb – it’s pretty clever at conveying a gamut of meanings too, from great enthusiasm (“OK, we’re really cooking now!”) to tepid endorsement (“That BBC article was OK…”) to attention grabbing (“OK, quieten down, class”).

But the main reason why I say Metcalfe’s analysis is undercooked is because he doesn’t spell out the essential element that led to the spread of OK throughout the US and thence the world. Yes, there was a craze on the US eastern seaboard for crazy abbreviations based on misspellings in the 1830s: OK for “orl korrect”, OW for “orl wright” etc. And as he says, it probably would have stayed there and perhaps died out if, in 1840, Martin van Buren had not stood for re-election as President. His nickname was Old Kinderhooks, after his home town in New York State, and one of his re-election campaign committees was the Democratic O.K. Club. It was this rallying call of “OK” that spread the phrase across the US.

Not that it helped van Buren much. He lost the election to William Harrison (whose snappy election catchphrase was “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”. No, I don’t know either).

UPDATE: Ranting sub has picked up on this here. Can’t say I agree with her preference for “okay”. But then she might not have had the same experience I’ve had having to find a short word for a full-out headline on a story about a council approving something or other.

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  1. February 21, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the mention – glad I wasn’t the only one who found that article lacking (strangely so, considering the author has written a book on the subject).

    I have, ahem, plenty of experience with the inconsiderately finite space that headlines allow. I too would always use OK in a headline. In fact, everywhere I currently work has OK as the mandatory style anyway. But when I’m whimsically wittering, I have a definite preference for okay. Just seems more elegant, somehow.

    I found the reader comments on that article really interesting. Do you know if there’s any truth in any of them? I particularly like “zero killed”.

  2. John
    February 22, 2011 at 7:26 pm


    There’s a useful list of the touted origins of OK at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_proposed_etymologies_of_OK

    It has the “zero killed” possibility as first being cited in an Italian dictionary (!) in 1990. Since the first recorded written reference is, as Metcalfe says, in 1839, I think we can discount that one.
    The French possibility, “au quai” (“to the dock”) is one I’ve heard quite often, but since the great linguist Allen Walker Read traced the spread of OK down the US eastern seaboard from Boston, then NY, then down to New Orleans, rather than the other way around, it’s hard to see how a French expression got a strong toehold in the English speaking north first before the French-speaking south.
    In fact, I think Metcalfe’s book must be simply a reworking of Read’s scholarly output on “OK”. At first Read thought it derived from just the Old Kinderhooks connection. Then he learnt about the fad for cod-abbreviations which predated that and realised that the latter origin reinforced and spread the former. He tended not to have much time for those who cited an American Indian or African origin for it.

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