In all its forms, OK is America’s most common word, but it has a strange and surprising history as linguist Allan Metcalf reveals in his new book. Denver Nicks on the OK Soda and 10 things you didn’t know about the word.
It is the most commonly used word in the English language, and the most widely recognized—in its various forms—in the world. Like this story, it was created by a journalist. The word “OK” was invented by Charles Gordon Greene, editor of Boston’s Morning Post in 1839. What followed in the life of the world’s most quietly ubiquitous and overlooked word is playfully recounted by Allan Metcalf in OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.
10 Things you didn’t know about the word OK
1. Genesis: Oll Korrect
“…perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have the ‘contribution box,’ et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause corks to fly, like sparks, upward.”
Thus was OK inconspicuously born into the world, on March 23, 1839, in the pages of a cantankerous Boston newspaper. Editors of the day shared a predilection for creating false acronyms—K.Y. (No Use), and K.K.K. (Commit No Nuisance), for example—and none more than Charles Gordon Greene, editor of Boston’s Morning Post. In this first usage, OK was just a silly, phonetically conceived acronym (think about it…. Oll Korrect). The context of this first usage is complicated, but suffice to say it involves a friendly spat with another newspaper over a city ordinance banning the use of dinner bells and the activities of the ABRS, the Anti-Bell Ringing Society, which was founded to ridicule the anti-bell ringing ordinance. Not what you’d call an auspicious start for the world’s biggest little word. From the pages of the Morning Post, “o.k.” was repeated by other newspapers, went a 19th-century version of viral to become a political slogan and soon enter the English lexicon.
2. Shootout at the O.K. Corral
In Tombstone, Arizona, in 1879, John Montgomery founded the O.K. Corral, Livery and Feed Stable. His use of “O.K.” was an early adaptation of the acronym that had by then come to mean something closer to “good,” rather than simply “correct.” Just two years later, Montgomery’s stable was immortalized when the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday tangled with five cowboys in the battle that would come to be known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In fact, shots were never exchanged at the O.K. Corral, but it was nearby, and the cowboys spent their day there before the bullets started flying.
Dutch, German, Swedish, Polish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Welsh, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Filipino… these are just some of the languages that have adapted the word OK
3. Okey Dokey
By the early 20th century, OK had lost all vestige of its humble origin as a newspaperman’s joke. Speakers, writers, listeners and readers all handled OK like any other word—indeed, it was increasingly spelled out “okay,” departing entirely from its abbreviated beginning—and its definition had become, simply and soberly, “all right.” But the festive mood of the Roaring Twenties demanded a comical usage, and thus was “okey dokey” born. The phrase has evolved on its own, now in its newest iteration used by Homer’s neighbor in The Simpsons, Ned Flanders. Okely Dokely!
4. OK Sign
The “OK” hand sign, wherein the index finger and the thumb form a circle, with the other three digits extended, was born in radio sometime around 1946. With a radio broadcaster behind soundproof glass, the director would give the OK hand sign to signal that all levels were OK and the show was ready to go.
5. Oklahoma – OK!
The Sooner State wasn’t OK until Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a musical about it, and the show’s title track became the official state song in 1953. The last line of the number ensured that Oklahoma, for better or for worse, would always be OK. “We’re only sayin’ you’re doing fine Oklahoma! Oklahoma—O.K.!” By the time the U.S. Postal Service introduced two-letter abbreviations for states, in 1963, Oklahoma’s fate was already sealed—OK.
6. E.T. OK
As the Apollo 11 lunar module approached the surface of the moon, Buzz Aldrin said to Neil Armstrong, “Contact light,” indicating that they were about to land. Armstrong responded, “shutdown,” as he killed the engines. The module settled into the moon dust, the first manmade object to make contact with the surface of the moon, and Aldrin anticlimactically said, “OK. Engine stop,” making “OK” the first word ever spoken on the moon.
In the mid-1990s, the Coca Cola company was suffering from brand envy, after it determined that “Coke” was the second-most identifiable expression among all the world’s languages—“OK” was the first. Coke launched OK Soda in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the phrase. By then, however, the meaning of OK had evolved into something closer to “satisfactory”—not necessarily good, but not bad either. As Metcalf says of OK Soda’s branding campaign, it’s “not exactly electrifying.” There’s a reason you don’t see OK Soda at the corner market these days.
8. Do It
In the early 1980s, as Apple was developing the first mouse-based point-and-click system, developers ran into a puzzling question. The “Cancel” button wasn’t a problem, but when users want to affirm something, what do they point at and what should it say? The first solution was a box that said, “Do It,” but focus groups were confused. “Why is the computer calling me a dolt?” asked one user. In the end developers settled on the old all correct, or oll korrect, and made the affirmative button say, simply, “OK”.
9. The International Word
Dutch, German, Swedish, Polish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Welsh, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Filipino… these are just some of the languages that have adapted the word OK to their own uses. The little word from the Boston newspaper sure has gotten around.
10. The American Word
Allan Metcalf, the author of OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, says OK is an emblematically American word, and within it a uniquely American philosophy. “Consider this,” Metcalf writes, “OK is practical, not sentimental. It means that something works. It doesn’t imply or demand perfection, nor does it imply disappointment. It’s just… perfectly OK.”
OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word By Allan Metcalf 224 pages. Oxford University Press. $18.95.
The Daily Beast, 12.08.10, 7:44 PM ET