Some books are amazing, and some are not, and some are OK. (Yes, I can make bad jokes like this all day, and I shall.) Below is a Q&A with author Allan Metcalf about his book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. Metcalf is also Professor of English at MacMurray College, Executive Secretary of the American Dialect Society, and punnier than I can ever hope to be. -Lauren Appelwick, Blog Editor
Q. Why write a whole book about OK? I mean, it’s just…OK.
A. Ah, but it’s OK the Great: the most successful and influential word ever invented in America. It’s our most important export to languages around the world—best known and most used, though used sometimes in weird ways. It expresses the pragmatic American outlook on life, the American philosophy if you will, in two letters. And in the twenty-first century, inspired by the 1967 book title I’m OK, You’re OK (which is the only famous quotation involving OK), it also has taught us to be tolerant of those who are different from us. On top of all that, its origin almost defies belief (it was a joke misspelling of “all correct”) and its survival after that inauspicious origin was miraculous. And strangely, though we use it all the time, we carefully avoid it when we’re making important documents and speeches. So, wouldn’t you say OK deserves a book?
Q. Then why hasn’t someone written an “OK” book before?
A. Good question. The answer goes back to your first question—it’s just OK. It’s so ordinary, so common nowadays that we use it without thinking. And its meaning is lacking in passion, so it doesn’t seem very interesting. But that’s just what is interesting. OK is a unique way to indicate approval without having to approve. If we want to express enthusiasm when using OK, we have to add something, like an A or an exclamation mark, AOK or OK! The neutrality of OK is incredibly useful, but it doesn’t catch our attention, and so there has been no previous book. Mine is a wake-up call, I hope.
Now although there haven’t been books, there have been articles aplenty about OK. But they mostly deal with the origins of OK, and they are mostly wrong. The true beginning of OK is truly improbable.
Q. OK, so why are so many explanations wrong? And what is the true origin?
A. Very soon after the birth of OK, its origins were deliberately misidentified, and for more than a century etymologists were led astray by that red herring. It was only in the 1960s that a scholar of American English, Allen Walker Read, did the research and published the detailed evidence that shows beyond a doubt—
A. That OK began as a joke in the Boston Morning Post of Saturday, March 23, 1839. As Read demonstrated, the Post’s o.k., which was explained to mystified readers as an abbreviation for “all correct,” was just one of numerous joking abbreviations employed by Boston newspaper editors to enliven their stories, two others being “o.f.m.” for “our first men” and “o.w.” for “all right.”
Q. So how come nobody remembered that explanation?
A. Because other explanations sprang up before OK was a year old.
One explanation was true, as far as it goes. Martin Van Buren was running for reelection as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. Well, it happens that his hometown was Kinderhook, New York, so in the election year 1840 his supporters began to call him “Old Kinderhook,” and O.K. clubs sprang up around the nation, most notably in New York City, to make the point that “O.K. is o.k.” He lost the election to a candidate with an even better slogan, “Log cabin and hard cider” William Henry Harrison (also “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”), but the political connection spread OK far and wide, and in later times many researchers thought it was the origin of OK, not just the means of disseminating it.
But the real red herring was a hoax perpetrated during that election year of 1840 by one of Van Buren’s detractors, who declared without a shred of evidence that Van Buren’s Democratic predecessor, Andrew Jackson, had coined OK. According to this myth, Jackson couldn’t spell, so he would put the initials OK on a document to signal his approval, thinking that it was an abbreviation of “all correct.”
Well, further investigation, also by Allen Walker Read, showed that first of all, Jackson was a pretty good speller, and second, he never marked OK on a document. I confirmed that in discussion with the curator of the President Jackson’s papers.
Since then, there have been many proposals for the “true” origin of OK, all stemming from the fact that O and K are familiar sounds in most of the languages of the world. It takes a whole chapter of my book just to mention some of these false origins. Perhaps the most enduring is the proposal that OK comes from the Choctaw Indian language. President Woodrow Wilson believed this myth, and consequently spelled it okeh, supposedly close to the Choctaw sound.
Q. Jokes and politics and hoaxes aside, how did OK become the workaday word everyone uses now?
A. This happened first with the telegraph and the railroad, both of which were invented around the time of OK. Somebody must have been inspired by the Andrew Jackson story, because soon in all sobriety OK was being used in telegraphy to signal messages received and also to announce departure and arrival of trains, and the successful laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.
It was different for writers of fiction. For some reason, from the birth of OK until the end of the nineteenth century, most writers avoided OK, even when writing stories in slang. For example, you won’t find a single OK in Huckleberry Finn or any other of Mark Twain’s works. Louisa May Alcott used it once in Little Women (“make everything okay all around”) but then for a second edition changed “okay” to “cozy.”
That’s one of the remaining mysteries of OK—why did good writers avoid it before the twentieth century? OK had a silly origin, but it wasn’t vulgar or blasphemous. Yet in the twentieth century, somehow OK became a normal part of everyday conversation and fictional dialogue.
Q. One of the mysteries? What else?
A. Well, primary evidence is still missing of the nineteenth century uses of OK to mark approval on documents and student papers. We know that people did, because various printed sources refer to that use of OK. Printed sources from earlier times are not hard to find on the Internet, which is where I did most of my research. But old manuscripts are rarely online, and even less the marks on documents. So I don’t know of a single actual document marked OK. If I had a century to search, I’d go from archive to archive around the country looking for old handwritten OKs. But I didn’t want to wait that long to finish my book.
Q. This is getting long. Anything else you want to mention?
A. Well, there’s lots more in my book. But I end it with a call for rightful recognition of this important and useful word. I think March 23, the anniversary of its birth in 1839, should be celebrated as OK Day every year. People should go around saying OK on that day—but they do every day, of course, so the day really wouldn’t be any different. Well, that’s OK.