GOOD

Why “OK” Is America’s Most Useful and Compact Invention

What the history of the word OK can tell us about American concision, psychology, and language.

What the history of the word OK can tell us about American concision, psychology, and language.

OK is a word so omnipresent, useful, and casual that it feels like it’s existed since the dawn of time. It’s hard to imagine how people could have spoken and written with those two little letters.


It’s also hard to imagine that two letters could encompass as much history and human experience as OK, but there’s no need for the imagination: Allan Metcalf’s book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word traces its journey from “joke to business tool and then to staple of everyday conversation and an attitude toward life.” Metcalf provides many snapshots of American history, with detours into the worlds of business and celebrity and psychology, while painting a vivid portrait of the weird, wild process of word evolution. I think you’ll find the yarn Metcalf spins to be far better than OK.

The origin of OK is an odd, unlikely one: It was a joking abbreviation for “all correct,” invented by Charles Gordon Greene in 1839 in the Boston Morning Post. In anticipation of your “huh?” you have to understand that abbreviations, especially humorous abbreviations, were in vogue in Boston at the time, kind of like our current world of LOL, ROTFL, and ZOMG. This trend produced many unsuccessful terms such as OW—an OK-like term for “oll wright” (all right) that flopped.

This origin was a lot for OK to overcome. Words that are jokes have a difficult route to success, and the silliness and obtrusiveness of OK should have doomed it to a quick exit from the language. As Metcalf showed in his previous book, Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success, words that are most likely to succeed blend in as if they were there all along; successful words tend to be stealthy and unassuming. OK was as stealthy as a dinosaur bone dropped in a punchbowl.

Fortunately, OK was as lucky as it was weird. Its first bit of good fortune was that Martin Van Buren’s hometown of Old Kinderhook allowed “OK” to be appropriated in 1840 as a name for the “OK Club”—which was part of the Democratic Party—and as a rallying cry for Van Buren, who ran for reelection (unsuccessfully) against William Henry Harrison. That started OK fever. With the real origin already forgotten, many false etymologies popped up, until a persuasive one took hold. Taking advantage of Andrew Jackson’s reputation as an uneducated rube, James Gordon Bennett concocted a false document that showed Jackson using and coining OK as an abbreviation of “Ole Kurrek.” This story was compelling and solidified OK’s place in English, where it soon spread as a tool for approving documents. So just as a joke accompanied OK’s birth, a hoax allowed it to live to a ripe old age.

I’m leaving out about 8,000 steps in OK’s story, but here’s one step I won’t neglect: In the early 1960’s, lexicographer Allen Walker Read uncovered the Boston origin of OK. Without him, we would probably still believe some of the bushels of OK-related bunk that exist, such as the theories that it came from a Choctaw or African word, or that it really was Andrew Jackson’s goof rather than Charles Gordon Greene’s joke. If Metcalf is the Michael Jordan of OK, Read is the Bill Russell.

Like, any successful word, OK has children. “AOK” was an invention of astronauts that was easier to hear over static than plain old OK. We’ve been saying “okey-doke” since the 1920s and “okey-dokey” since the thirties. We have Ned Flanders to thank for “okeley-dokely,” while South Park’s Mr. Mackey is the patron doofus of “m’kay” (though it was used earlier on Beavis and Butthead and Office Space). The “old okey doke” dates from the sixties, and refers to a type of hoodwinking or trickery. Since 1972, folks have been referring to the mythical OK Corral as a place for showdowns and smackdowns, as seen in the first known use: “‘California’, said Carl Wagner, at 26 a seasoned veteran of the McGovern primary battles, ‘is the gunfight at OK Corral.’”

A major factor in OK’s success is its adaptability. Metcalf praises its “hydra-headedness,”—meaning that OK can be a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, interjection, abbreviation, or acronym (technically, an initialism). It can be spelled “o.k.,” “ok,” “O.K.,” “OK,” “okay,” and sometimes “okey” or “okeh.” That adaptability also applies to its meaning. OK is affirmative, but it doesn’t gush or overpromise. Few things in the world will ever be outstanding, wonderful, top-notch, or world-class, but many things are OK. Such flexibility made OK perfect fodder for Thomas A. Harris, when his 1967 book I’m OK, You’re OK merged transactional psychology and OK in a marriage that took both to greater heights. That book had a huge effect on OK’s legacy. As Metcalf puts it “...it could be argued that with I’m OK, You’re OK as a catalyst, in the 21st century OK became a whole two-letter American philosophy of tolerance, even admiration, for difference.”

So get this book, OK? If you love words, history, or Americana, you’ll find it fascinating. You may even agree with Metcalf that we should celebrate OK on March 23, its birthday. “OK Day” certainly has a ring to it.

Articles
via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics
via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

Lifestyle

Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dropped a bombshell on Tuesday, announcing it had over 900 emails that White House aide Stephen Miller sent to former Breitbart writer and editor Katie McHugh.

According to the SPLC, in the emails, Miller aggressively "promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories and obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof's murderous rampage."

Keep Reading Show less
Politics
via Twitter / Bye,Bye Harley Davidson

The NRA likes to diminish the role that guns play in fatal shootings by saying, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

Which is the same logic as, "Hammers don't build roofs, people build roofs." No duh. But it'd be nearly impossible to build a roof without a hammer.

So, shouldn't the people who manufacture guns share some responsibility when they are used for the purpose they're made: killing people? Especially when the manufacturers market the weapon for that exact purpose?

Keep Reading Show less
Business