Is this OK?
The 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.”
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.