A day to celebrate OK, and give awesome the bullet
Catherine Armitage, The Age, March 23, 2013
Have an OK day. No, really.
On this day 174 years ago that most modest yet useful of words was born.
Allan Metcalf, an Illinois professor of English who reckons OK is not just America’s most successful word but may be the greatest word in the language, wants you to join him in an international day of celebration.
Any way you choose to mark it is OK with him. He’s having OK cookies made and distributing them to his friends and colleagues. There’s a Facebook page but otherwise not much going on. Professor Metcalf thinks he’ll try harder next year “because of the big anniversary”, the 175th. Meanwhile OK flourishes where it’s always been, under the radar.
"The problem with OK is it is just OK, and nobody is very excited about it except me," he says.
It is said to be the most frequently spoken and typed word on the planet. It is claimed to be the first word spoken on the moon, uttered by Buzz Aldrin, as in “OK. Engine stop”, but this is debated.
Professor Metcalf loves it because “in two letters it expresses the American philosophy of making do, it teaches tolerance, and it confirms countless negotiations in our everyday speech”.
He sings its praises at length in a 2010 book, OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. He has tried to go without saying it, but only lasts “about 10 minutes”.
There are multiple theories for its origins including that it is a derivation of the Scottish affirmation och aye, or comes from the 2000-year-old Greek expression olla kalla, meaning all right, or from the Choctaw word “okeh” meaning “it is true”, or from the imprint stamped on US army biscuits by the Chicago bakery O. Kendall and Sons.
But the embarrassingly lame truth was uncovered by the late Columbia University scholar of American English Allen Walker Read the old-fashioned way, by combing through newspapers.
He pinpointed its first use as a piece of would-be humour by an editor in the Boston Morning Post on this day in 1837.
It stood for “Orl Korrect” a jokey shortening and misspelling of “all correct”.
It went viral in 1840 when US president Martin Van Buren from Kinderhook, New York, got the nickname “Old Kinderhook” and “OK Clubs” were formed in his support.
"It’s almost a precursor to text speak, it is like a frontrunner, ahead of the SMS curve," says Fairfax columnist and crossword writer David Astle.
The modern fetish for brevity abbreviates it to simply “K”, which is at least preferable to the reduplicative “okey dokey”, which Astle spurns as “hokey”.
He recalls his grandmother’s dislike of OK as “too American”, yet it is far superior to such substitutes as “sweet”, “awesome”, or increasingly, “all good”. “All good [is rising] with a bullet, and awesome needs one,” Astle says.