OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word
By Allan Metcalf
Hardcover, 224 pages
Oxford University Press
List Price: $18.95
The ABCs of OK
It is said to be the most frequently spoken (or typed) word on the planet, bigger even than an infant's ﬁrst word ma or the ubiquitous Coke. And it was the ﬁrst word spoken on the moon.
It's America's answer to Shakespeare.
It's an entire philosophy expressed in two letters.
It's very odd, but it's . . . OK.
Yes, OK. Just two simple letters. And two letters of humble origin; they were born as a lame joke perpetrated by a newspaper editor in 1839. But these two simple letters (or four, if you use its genteel alter ego okay) anchor our agreements, conﬁrm our understandings, and choreograph the dance of everyday life.
This is a book about OK. And OK truly deserves a book of its own, not only because it is diﬀerent from anything else in our language but because it is so important. OK is a meme that has burrowed deeply into the way we think and act. In fact, those two letters encapsulate a whole view of life — the American philosophy, if two letters can be said to embody a philosophy, and if Americans can be said to have one.
Yet we scarcely notice. OK seems too simple, too trivial, and above all too familiar to attract notice to itself. It scarcely makes an appearance in books of famous quotations. Here, in fact, is the complete Book of Famous OK Quotations:
I'm OK — You're OK
— Title of book on transactional analysis (1967) by Thomas A. Harris, M.D.
That's it? Yes, to capture all the famous quotations involving love or war would take many pages. But the collection of famous quotations involving OK contains all of one item.
Wait a minute, you might say. What about Todd Beamer's famous "OK, let's roll!" to begin the attack on the terrorists who hijacked United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001? The full quotation was "Are you guys ready? OK, let's roll!" But even in that statement, the OK was inconspicuous. On the T-shirts and other memorabilia that soon were produced in his honor, only the last two words were reproduced. His wife Lisa's book honoring him likewise omitted OK from its title: Let's Roll! Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage. As Time magazine summarized in December 2001, "Many diverse Americans have latched onto his phrase 'Let's roll' to symbolize that strength of character." But not OK.
It's everywhere, but hardly noticed. In the November 23, 2009, issue of the New Yorker you will ﬁnd a cartoon whose caption begins and ends with OK. Two waiters are standing in an entrance-way looking at a woman at a distant table, and one says to the other, "O.K., her mouth is full — run over and ask her if everything is O.K." Amusing, but not because of OK. And there's no indication that the joke was making any kind of play on the two diﬀerent meanings of OK that it employs.
Another missed opportunity for a famous OK quotation came when Frank Silver and Irving Cohn wrote one of the best-known songs of the twentieth century. In an alternate universe, maybe, their lyrics would go like this:
There's a fruit store on our street. It's run by a Greek. And he keeps good things to eat, But you should hear him speak. When you ask him anything, Never answers no. He just OKs you to death, And as he take your dough, he tells you: "OK! We have no bananas. We have no bananas today. . . ."
But in our universe, because of the unassuming nature of OK, Silver and Cohn instead chose a diﬀerent word for their 1923 hit, and the quotation books have only "Yes! We have no bananas." Important, yet inconspicuous. That is just one of the oddities of the world's best-known word.
This book will explore the mystery of OK: its odd origin, its unlikely survival, its varied forms and meanings, and its pervasive inﬂuence. OK is the most amazing invention in the history of American English.
The Everyday OK
It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that the modern world runs on OK (or plain lowercase k, if you are texting). We write those letters on documents to mark our approval. We speak them to express assent, or just to say we're listening. We accept a computer's actions by clicking on OK. And we also use OK to introduce matters of importance, or recall an audience's wandering attention.
Those are the simple obvious uses for OK, the ones we know well. In those situations, what a good friend OK is! A handy tool. An uncomplaining workhorse. Indeed, in America in the twenty-ﬁrst century, it's hard to get through a conversation without a plentiful sprinkling of OK. It's the easiest way to signal agreement, whether with a written OK on a document or an OK spoken aloud:
OK, I'll go with you.
OK, you win.
At the start of a sentence, OK can also be a wakeup call, an alert, an attention getter, an announcement that something new is coming:
OK, I'll only say this once.
OK, I get it.
OK, let's start making our pinhole camera!
Blue Jeans, Shakespeare, and Light
To begin to grasp the full import of the phenomenon that is OK, we need to step back and consider it from fresh perspectives. When we do, we ﬁnd that OK is like blue jeans, Shakespeare, and light.
OK is as American as jeans. In fact, it's very much like them. Nearly everyone uses both OK and jeans for everyday purposes, but not on formal occasions. And they are both American inventions of the nineteenth century that have spread to the far corners of the globe.
Less obviously, OK is also America's answer to Shakespeare. Or more precisely, OK is America's Shakespeare, a two-letter expression as potent (though perhaps not as poetic) as anything in the Bard's works. Like Shakespeare, OK is protean, pervasive, inﬂuential, and successful in its own day and in ours. But the similarity goes deeper.
Like Shakespeare, OK had humble origins. This has set some critics on edge, prompting them to deny the attested origins in favor of more digniﬁed ones.
For Shakespeare, the anti-Stratfordians reason that the "poacher from Stratford," a commoner, could not have written the noble language of Shakespeare's plays and poems. No, those works of genius must have come from a nobleman like the Earl of Oxford, a scholar like Francis Bacon, a college-educated playwright like Christopher Marlowe (whose death in 1593 must have been faked), or royalty—maybe Queen Elizabeth.
Similarly, for OK, elitists ﬁnd it beyond embarrassing to think that OK began as a joke misspelling for "all correct." Surely, they reason, an expression as serious and important as OK must have come from a more serious abbreviation, like "Old Kinderhook" for presidential candidate Martin Van Buren in the 1840 election. Or maybe it came from baker Otto Kimmel's supposed custom of imprinting his initials in vanilla cookies. Or wait—maybe it was borrowed from another language, like Choctaw, Scottish, Greek, or Mandingo.
All very tempting, but overwhelming evidence shows otherwise.
Another thing OK and Shakespeare have in common is elusiveness. How do you properly spell OK? And is it a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or interjection? Indeed, is it a word at all, an abbreviation, or something else? There are no simple answers to these questions.
Similarly, the text of Shakespeare's plays can't be pinned down. The quarto and folio versions of the plays published during or shortly after Shakespeare's lifetime have signiﬁcant diﬀerences, and it is hard to imagine the full text of either quarto or folio being spoken quickly enough to ﬁt the "two hours traﬃc" stated in the prologue to Romeo and Juliet.
And light! Yes, OK is like light, in our post-Einsteinian understanding of that pervasive phenomenon. Before Einstein, physicists were puzzled: light sometimes appears to be a particle, sometimes a wave. Is light a wave or particle? Einstein's answer was "Yes, it's either, or both." That's the answer we have to give to the OK phenomenon. Is it a word or an abbreviation? Is it noun, verb, adjective, adverb, interjection, or all of the above? The answer has to be "Yes, it's either, or both, or all."
It's an old-fashioned joke with a postmodern punch line.
So it will take a village of chapters to approach the heart of the mystery of OK.
Excerpted from OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word by Allan Metcalf. Copyright 2010 by Allan Metcalf. Excerpted by permission of Oxford University Press.