A quirky debut for the now ever-present 'OK'
A new book by popular linguist Allan Metcalf makes the case for 'OK' as 'America's greatest word.'
It's OK. I've written about this before. It's not great. But it's just about everywhere.Skip to next paragraph
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OK was "invented," if that's the right word, by Charles G. Greene, editor of the Boston Morning Post. Metcalf offers up an exact date for the first appearance in print of OK: March 23, 1839, on page 2.
At this period, Boston and New York were in the midst of a fad of comical misspellings of common words and phrases. OK was – brace yourself – the abbreviation for "oll korrect," a goofy spelling of "all correct."
It's interesting to see what passed for humor in those days. On the other hand, one could argue that this early "o.k." – lowercase and with periods – anticipated by more than a century and a half "c u l8tr" and the like from the world of text messaging.
Greene's joke was the first of four developments that fixed OK in the American language, according to Metcalf. The second was President Martin Van Buren's reelection campaign in 1840.
A Democrat, Van Buren hailed from Kinderhook, N.Y. His nickname was "Old Kinderhook" and his campaign slogan was "Old Kinderhook Is OK." Greene's coinage as a general expression of approval had taken root in less than two years. "That nickname picked up the 1839 abbreviation like a magnet," Metcalf writes. Van Buren lost to William Henry Harrison, a Whig. But OK lived on.
Another newspaperman's joke was responsible for the third phase of OK. During the 1840 campaign, James Gordon Bennett published a story suggesting that OK had originated with Van Buren's predecessor, Andrew Jackson. Bennett played off the popular – but inaccurate – perception of Jackson as a semiliterate rube to suggest Old Hickory approved documents by marking them "OK," because he really thought "oll korrect" was right.
Metcalf writes, "Once the hoax was successfully launched, the place of OK in our language was secure."
Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph in 1839 was the fourth development that Metcalf identifies in the trajectory of OK. Soon telegraph wires and railroad lines would crisscross the country. Almost from the beginning, "OK" was a common message, in dots and dashes. Sometimes it signified simply that the lines were functioning. But even that routine message carried a deeper meaning: Yes, I read you.
"OK," let's be frank, is not "great" or "superlative." It's just "OK." Therein lies its usefulness and flexibility. Sometimes it's just verbal filler, a slight improvement on "um." If you have multiple options, OK belongs to the middle range: not great, not bad. In a binary system, though, OK is what you want: pass instead of fail. In complex spaceflight, "A-OK" is as good as it gets. On a computer, OK is the button that moves you along.
"Before its invention," Metcalf writes, OK "would not have appeared on anyone's list of needed words.... And yet, when created almost by happenstance, it caught on, better than most creations."
If America is the land of second chances, of people reinventing themselves, maybe it's also the land where a passing grade is all you need to take it to the next level. And that's OK.