Allan Metcalf's OK downplays the word's ambiguity.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 1 2010 10:20 AM

My OK, Your OK

A history of the word fails to fully appreciate its ambiguity.

"OK" by Allan Metcalf.

I canceled plans with a friend recently. "Sorry," I wrote after a mincing explanation, "I know it was hell for you to change your schedule around, but it looks like I won't be able to make it tonight, after all." "OK," was all he sent back. Was my friend hurt? Annoyed? Simply busy? Entirely indifferent? And did he anticipate my bewilderment? Did he know that he'd left his note open to a range of possible interpretations?

For Allan Metcalf, MacMurray College professor and author of OK, my friend's two-letter, one-word rejoinder is "by far the most successful American creation in language." It is also the "most frequently spoken (or typed) word on the planet." Like fast food, OK spread from the United States to the world; you'll hear it in Holland, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Finland, Italy, Spain, Wales, Israel, Korea, and Japan, among other countries, with, of course, slight variations in pronunciation. Paradoxically, a word that causes confusion when spoken (or typed) without sufficient context is also universally intelligible.

Another paradox, of sorts: OK is ubiquitous, yet its origins remain murky—and much-disputed on Internet forums—which serves as Metcalf's justification for writing a book (albeit a very slim one) about its history. One popular theory holds that OK comes from the Choctaw okeh or hoke, meaning "it is true" or "it is so." Or maybe it's derived from a baker named Otto Kimmel, who stamped packages of vanilla cookies with his initials.

Drawing heavily on the work of late Columbia professor Allen Walker Read, who published a series of articles on OK in the journal American Speech from 1963 to 1964, Metcalf dismisses these speculations as baseless. The only etymology with hard evidence behind it, he says, is that OK began as a joke—a joke so bad, so boring, that I won't cover it in detail. Briefly: In the spring of 1839, the Boston Post ran an article tweaking the Providence Daily Journal, which included the phrase "OK—all correct." Get it? OK started as an intentionally misspelled abbreviation of all correct (oll korrect). It sprang, more generally, from an 1830s fad for abbreviations, like NG for no good and OW for oll wright or all right.

Having found its way into English in the least dignified way possible, OK might have gone the way of NG and OW, Indeed, it probably would have, were it not for the confluence of three subsequent usages—in a political campaign, as a political dig, and in technology. A year after the Boston Post's lame joke, Martin Van Buren ran for president and, in the process, acquired the nickname "Old Kinderhook," or O.K. for short, after his home town in New York. Thus OK "could have a double meaning," Metcalf explains, "Old Kinderhook was all correct." The word also benefited from an early false etymology, which held that Andrew Jackson had coined it for ole kurrek—because he was too simple, too uneducated, to know the actual spelling. In addition, it got a boost from the invention of the telegraph. Signal offices used OK as shorthand for all right.

Of course, a dumb joke, two American presidents, and the telegraph aren't sufficient explanation for how OK got to be so "successful," as Metcalf puts it. So he advances the aesthetic argument that we like the look of the word—a feminine O with the choppy, masculine K, the contrast of perfect roundness next to striking angularity—and its sound, the two long vowels O and A separated by the hard, quick K. This assessment might feel strained. Consider, however, that OK does not fill a gap in the language. There are a number of synonyms for the word, among them the clunky, unused all correct, all right, and fine, which may be substituted for OK without a change in meaning. Perhaps the only rational justification for why we became a nation of OKers is that we enjoy saying it, and enjoy writing it.

In the ever-so-slightly meatier portion of the book, Metcalf also offers that the word resonates because it embodies, or gives concise voice to, two American philosophies: the philosophy of pragmatism, which does not "imply or demand perfection" but values, simply, whatever works; and the related philosophy of tolerance and acceptance, best captured by the phrase I'm OK, You're OK (after Thomas Harris' best-selling 1967 pop-psychology classic). Metcalf gives less weight to the relativist OK, or the "noncommittal" OK, as he calls it, which "affirms without evaluating." The word's passivity, to Metcalf, is merely one of its many aspects, rather than an encapsulation of a third, less glamorous American philosophy: the shrug. As American as pragmatism, the shrug, and its verbal counterpart, the noncommittal OK, are everyday necessities for those too jaded or timid to fully embrace, or fully reject, a concept, plan, or work of art. To say that something is "good" or "bad" is to leave oneself open to criticism, but to say that it is "OK" is to play both sides—yeah, the acting was terrible. I didn't say it was "good," did I?

Throughout, Metcalf stresses OK's clarity over its opacity. He does not linger on its potential for unintentionally confusing exchanges (like the one with my friend above) or even willful inscrutability, as when I respond to not terribly convincing "I'm sick" notes from interns with, "That's OK."

He may be missing the usage of the future, it seems to me, in downplaying the baffling OK, deliberate or otherwise. When used in speech, the word benefits from facial and tonal and social contexts. As our conversations move increasingly into a textual arena, OK gets stripped of these supports. The lone OK in an otherwise blank e-mail tells us only one thing for certain: Our initial message did, in fact, fly successfully through the ether and land in the intended inbox. Whether the OK surrounded by white space is also meant to convey emotion—positive, negative, or something in between—we just can't tell. Whether that uncertainty is positive, negative, or something in between is purely a matter of opinion. On the giving end, I rather like it—in fact, I couldn't do without it.

As Metcalf is well-aware, a slight and derivative book like his, on the topic he has chosen, can't help but invite the verdict that it's no better than all correct. Sure, there's a pragmatic case for a clip job like this (he's forthright about how much he's borrowed from Read), though in the era of Googling, it hardly seems urgent—and when you boil down Metcalf's own contributions, they amount to about the length of a short article.

In the spirit of that great American philosophy, tolerance, I'll admit there's merit in presenting readers with interesting questions—where did OK come from, and why is it so ubiquitous?—that they might never generate independently. Asking questions in a public forum is, after all, the raison d'être for Slate's Explainer column, which I write roughly once a week. Then again, that column caps out at around 600 words and needn't be purchased in hard cover.

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Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.