OK: How Two Letters Made 'America's Greatest Word' Everybody says it dozens of times every day — from its Boston birthplace to the farthest reaches of Earth. It's the word "OK" — the subject of the new book OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word. Author Allan Metcalf says it embodies America's can-do philosophy in just two letters.

OK: How Two Letters Made 'America's Greatest Word'

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz, though I'm here to tell you everything is A-OK, okay?

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay...

(Soundbite of song, "It's Not Right But It's Okay")

Ms. WHITNEY HOUSTON (Singer, Actress): (Singing) It's not right but it's okay...

Unidentified Woman: OK.

Unidentified Man #2: OK.

Unidentified Man #3: OK.

Unidentified Man #4: OK.

Unidentified Man #5: OK, OK.

Unidentified Man #6: OK. OK.

Unidentified Man #7: OK.

Unidentified Man #8: OK?

Unidentified Man #9: OK. OK.

Unidentified Man #10: OK. I got it here.

Unidentified Man #11: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #10: OK. OK, here. OK? OK.

RAZ: OK. You get the picture, right? This is the world's most popular word -well, at least that's what Allan Metcalf claims, and he should know, OK? He's written a book simply titled "OK." And it's the story of what he calls America's greatest word.

OK, Allan, you there?

Professor ALLAN METCALF (English, McMurray College; Author, "OK"): I'm here.

RAZ: You OK?

Mr. METCALF: I'm OK. I hope you're OK.

RAZ: I'm OK. So, OK - OK began as a joke, I gather, in a newspaper.

Mr. METCALF: It was the craziest thing. On the 23rd of March 1839 in the Boston Morning Post, it was part of an elaborate joke that the editor was perpetrating on another editor. They had a lot of abbreviations that they were using and made up on the spot and thought they were terrifically funny, and OK was an abbreviation for all correct.

RAZ: It just appears in a newspaper in 1839, O.K, in parentheses, (all correct.)

Mr. METCALF: That's correct. And it was just one of many abbreviations. If it hadn't been for some amazing coincidences, we would never be saying OK nowadays.

RAZ: And so, there were plenty of these coincidences that you describe in your book. First, let me ask you about Martin Van Buren. See, because I used to hear the story that he actually is the guy that invented the word. How does this word become associated with Martin Van Buren, because normally I think, you know, muttonchops.

Mr. METCALF: Well, it happens that Martin Van Buren came from Kinderhook, New York, and he got the nickname Old Kinderhook. And early in 1840, OK Clubs sprung up with the slogan OK is Okay. So, taking that funny little word and making it a mainstay of the political conversation in 1840, suddenly, OK was way OK.

RAZ: And he used to sign his documents OK, right?

Mr. METCALF: That is a myth. And it was supposedly Andrew Jackson who signed his documents OK. Early in that election year of 1840, one of Martin Van Buren's opponents, who also opposed Jackson - because they both were Democrats - claimed that Andrew Jackson had been a terrible speller. And so he would get a document and when he approved it, he would write O.K. on it indicating that it was all correct.

Now, that's a total hoax. Andrew Jackson was a good speller. But because of that, somebody at some time within 20 years began writing OK on documents. They began using OK on telegraph lines for approval, and the telegraph was invented around the same time as OK.

RAZ: And that was, obviously, the perfect medium to use OK because you had to spit something out in pretty short space.

Mr. METCALF: Absolutely. They even used OK as a technical term for properly laying the Atlantic cable in 1866.

RAZ: So it was sort of like the early form of a text message, right? Like an LOL or an OMG?


RAZ: Right.

Mr. METCALF: Yes, I'm OK with those.

RAZ: Now, if you flip through, you know, pages of some of the better 19th century authors, American authors, you won't find OK in the works of, like, Mark Twain or Bret Harte. I mean, when did people start to accept that OK was okay to use?

Mr. METCALF: It is amazing that in the 19th century, even though OK was being used, all the good authors seem to avoid it. Louisa May Alcott used OK once in "Little Women," and in the next edition of that, she changed OK to cozy...

RAZ: Cozy?

Mr. METCALF: ...of all things. Cozy because...

RAZ: Like, I'm cozy?

Mr. METCALF: I'm cozy with that instead of I'm OK with that, which indicates that there was something uncomfortable about it. I think it had to do with forgetting the funny origins of OK, forgetting that it stood for all correct. So by the time President Woodrow Wilson came along, he thought it had really come from a Choctaw Indian word, which he spelled O-K-E-H, which was their equivalent of something like OK.

It wasn't, but when you have a president of the United States, the only president who had a Ph.D. write OK on documents, then it was kind of okay...

RAZ: It became okay.

Mr. METCALF: ...to say OK.

RAZ: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. METCALF: But the reason OK is so important is that it's the American philosophy in two ways embodied in just two letters. And one is the American philosophy of pragmatism. If something's OK, that's OK. It'll work. Maybe it's not perfect, but it'll work. And that's an American attitude. And the other is that incredible statement, the only famous quotation using OK, which is, I'm OK, you're OK. That's from the Thomas Harris book of 1967.

Based on that, I'm OK. You can be different than me and you're OK. That's OK. I think our country is a lot more tolerant now than it used to be.

RAZ: When you were writing this book, Allan, did you ever find yourself noticing when you said OK? Because when I got this book and I started to read it, I found myself hearing every time I say OK.

Mr. METCALF: Yes, I find myself noticing it now and then. It is so pervasive that we don't notice it. And I do think we should really celebrate OK Day on the 23rd of March every year.

RAZ: Wait, hold on - OK Day, 23rd of March? Where'd that come out of?

Mr. METCALF: Well, it was the 23rd of March in 1839 when OK was first invented.

RAZ: Who created OK Day?

Mr. METCALF: Well, I'm creating OK Day.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. METCALF: And the nice thing is, on OK Day, I'd like everybody going around saying OK.

(Soundbite of laughter0

Mr. METCALF: And I'm sure that they will because they say OK every day.

RAZ: That's the 23rd of March 2011 is going to be - is this the first annual OK Day?

Mr. METCALF: I guess it is.

RAZ: OK. We'll do it. That's Allan Metcalf. He's an English professor at McMurray College in Illinois. His new book is called "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word." I'm actually convinced now.

Professor Metcalf, thank you so much.

Mr. METCALF: It's been a pleasure.

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