Monday, May 16, 2011

OK by Me

You might think it unlikely that anyone could write a whole book about one word—especially one that sometimes isn’t even a proper word, but just two letters stuck together.  I refer, of course, to okay, a.k.a. O.K., OK, and even okeh. 

Allan Metcalf has done it—and come up with OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, a narrative of 224 pages all about this expression, which he calls a meme.  Meme is defined as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” That makes it sound like a disease, but okay—or OK, as Metcalf prefers.

Most language experts agree, more or less, on how the word, uh…meme, came to be.  It was in the 1830s when several simultaneous cultural and historical influences gave birth to OK.  First printed in The Boston Morning Post as a faddish joke, O.K. was meant as a facetious abbreviation of “oll korreck.”  It took its place alongside such other jocular misspellings as K.G. (“no go” as if spelled “know go”), K.Y. (“no use” or “know youse”), and N.C. (“’nuff ced”).

O.K. was used as a political taunt against President Andrew Jackson, whose opponents tried to paint him as an illiterate who used it to mean “all correct” because he couldn’t spell.  They also made jokes that O.K. meant Jackson was “Out of Kash,” “Out of Kredit,” “Out of Klothes,” and “Orfully Konfused.”

When Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin van Buren, ran for a second term in 1840, the Whigs plastered him with the O.K. designation, which had the added cachet of standing for “Old Kinderhook,” as Van Buren was sometimes called, after the New York village in which he was born.  A group of his supporters called themselves “The O.K. Club.”

With all this background, people began marking “OK” on documents or using the letters “OK” in telegrams to mean that all was well. Thus the expression entered the language and became much-used permanent fixture, not only in English but in many other languages that picked it up.

There is no shortage of other claims of how O.K. originated. 

The Choctaw language has a word spelled okeh that means “it is so.”  That’s the way President Woodrow Wilson spelled OK. A Tennessee historian claims that O.K. appears in a 1790 court record quoting Andrew Jackson who used it mean “acceptable.” Another historian traces its use to 1815 in a hand-written diary of travels by William Richardson. 

A raft of latter-day attempts to explain it include:

*Ohne Korrektur, a German phrase meaninag “without 
*The Russian phrase ochen khorosho (“very well”)
*The initials of “Obediah Kelly,” placed on railroad bills of 
*The initials of “Otto Kaiser,” certifying factory products ready 
        for shipping
*A homophonic transliteration of the French au quai (“on the 
       dock”), a phrase supposedly used by sailors in the 
      American Revolution in making trysts 
*Ober Kommand (German “high command”)
*The initials of “open key,” a telegraph signal meaning “ready 
       to transmit”
*The Latin phrase  Omnis Korrecta, supposesdly used by 
      schoolmasters in marking papers
*“Outer keel,” a marking on the timbers used in ship-building
*Initials of “Orrin Kendall,” suppliers of high-quality biscuits in 
       the Civil War
*The Old English word hogfor, meaning “seaworthy” and 
      pronounced by Norwegian sailors as “hah gay”
*The numeral 0 followed by the letter K, meaning “zero killed” 
     in military dispatches
*The Scottish och aye (“yes”)
*The French O qu’oui (“ah, yes”)
*The initials of “Old Keokuk,” a Sac chief
*The Bantu word waw-kay (“yes, indeed”).

It’s easy to see, after all, how Metcalf was able to get a whole book out of just two letters.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has trouble getting a couplet out of all 26 letters, and after his week of rest, insists, “Och aye, waw kay, O qu’oui, I’m hah gay,” the meaning of which is clearer than his weekly offering in what passes for verse:

            I thought it would be okey-dokey
            The time I wound up in the pokey.
            My cellmate was another bloke; he
            Said that he was born in Skokie,
            But later he became an Okie.
            He had a cough and sounded croaky,
            Because our cell was hot and smoky.
            So I offered him a troche,
            And when he said such stuff was hokey,
            I tried to play it cool and low-key.
            He went to sleep, and when he woke, he
            Began to dance the hokey-pokey,
            Which made me think he must be cokey
            And maybe not so okey-dokey.

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