Review of "OK," a history of a favorite American expression, by Allan Metcalf

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Friday, October 29, 2010; 1:28 PM


The Improbable History

of America's Greatest Word

By Allan Metcalf

Oxford Univ. 210 pp. $18.95

Probably there are as many theories about the origins of "OK" as there are theorists to expound them, but Allan Metcalf is satisfied that he knows the only one that really holds water. Relying on the work in the early 1960s of a "professor at Columbia University, scholar without equal of American English," Metcalf reports as follows:

"Thanks to the published work of Allen Walker Read, who documented the emergence and spread of OK in 1839 and 1840 with literally hundreds of contemporary citations, it is absolutely clear that OK began as a joke in a Boston newspaper and was transformed by politics and a hoax into the expression we still use today. The trail of written evidence from that day to the present is thick and clear. No other origin is plausible. Yet throughout the history of OK there have been doubts. If it weren't for the overwhelming evidence, the true history of OK would indeed be hard to believe."

The joke that got it all started is considerably less than funny today. You had to be there, there being Boston in March 1839. A minor controversy had arisen between certain citizens of that city and its neighbor to the southwest, Providence, the details of which are too trivial to merit elaboration in this limited space, so suffice it to say that the editor of the Boston Post was inspired to invent the phrase "o.k.," which he defined as "all correct." As Metcalf says, "The joke that o.k. would be an abbreviation for all correct, when neither o nor k was the correct spelling, was such a stretch that it required the explanation 'o.k. - all correct' to follow immediately."

Whether readers of the Post were left rolling in the aisles has not been reported, but the newspaper's editor, Charles Gordon Greene, was so enamored of his witticism that he employed it again three days later, and he got it on the road to immortality by elevating it to O.K. This was confirmed in October of the same year when the Evening Transcript, the newspaper of Boston's elite, proclaimed that "the suspension of the U.S. Bank and its dependencies . . . is O.K. (all correct) in this quarter," but by then OK had even made its way to New York, and the rest is history.

But history rarely if ever is tidy, and the march of OK into the heart of the language was neither rapid nor sure-footed. Metcalf argues that, in addition to "the fad for joking abbreviations in Boston newspapers of the late 1830s," the process was nudged along by three other factors: the presidential candidacy of Martin Van Buren in 1840, the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the invention of the telegraph. The first was important because Van Buren acquired the nickname "Old Kinderhook" after his home town in Upstate New York: "OK now could have a double meaning: Old Kinderhook was all correct." Then as the log-cabin legend of Andy Jackson gained steam, it was claimed - falsely - that in his rough frontier style he had declared a friend "Ole Kurrek (all correct) and no mistake." Finally, the invention of the telegraph made the use of OK as shorthand for "all right" commonplace. After that, it was clear sailing.

All of which seems plausible enough to me, but Google "OK" and you'll find yourself swept into a tsunami of argument, evidence and speculation, not to mention recrimination. Probably the history of OK, like the life and death of the Princess Anastasia, will be debated into the mists of eternity. What is certain, though, is that in less than two centuries it has evolved into a central part of the American language and, far more than that, the language of the world. My Spanish has its definite limits, but when I'm in Peru and someone greets me with "¿Como esta?" and I reply, "OK," I am immediately and unequivocally understood - and a Peruvian is every bit as likely to use the word as I am.

Whoa. Did I say "word"? Metcalf poses the question: "How do you properly spell OK? And is it a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or interjection? Indeed, is it a word at all, an abbreviation, or something else?" The answer, he says, "has to be: 'Yes, it's either, or both, or all.' " Basically it's a synonym for "all right," which is how most of us use it most of the time, in the sense of "affirming without evaluating." Metcalf writes:

"You can apply the very test to see how noncommittal OK is. Most adjectives can express greater intensity with the modifying adverb very, as in very good or very satisfying. But you can't say very OK; something is simply OK or not. The prohibition extends to all modifying adverbs, so we never (or hardly ever) say extremely OK, thoroughly OK, moderately OK, partly OK, or the like."

It seems to me that OK isn't always quite so passive as Metcalf believes it to be. In the title song from the musical "Oklahoma!," the phrase "Oklahoma OK" is followed by a great roar of jubilation and pride, not quoted by Metcalf: "You're doin' fine, Oklahoma!/Oklahoma O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A/OKLAHOMA/Yeow!" It simply isn't true that, as used in the song or on the state's license plate, "OK just doesn't imply much enthusiasm." By the same token many people (myself included) use "Oh-KAY!" as a way of expressing wild excitement over, say, a hail-Mary touchdown pass with no time left on the clock or a walk-off grand slam homer in the bottom of the ninth.

Still, it's true that mostly we use OK when we mean that something is all right, better than passable but far from super. It long ago lost any resemblance to a joke, so when we want to give it a humorous twist we're likely to say "Okey-dokey," which has various connotations, among them "lack of education, or, more positively, simplicity of character" and "playfulness." The rise of computers has greatly increased the importance of OK, because in the point-and-click system OK has become universal shorthand for "Do It," one that is understood without question everywhere the Latin alphabet is known and used.

In 1969, with the publication of Thomas A. Harris's "I'm OK, You're OK," OK "became a whole two-letter American philosophy of tolerance, even admiration, for difference." Though at times it's difficult to distinguish between this positive interpretation of Harris's take on transactional analysis and the mania for unearned "self-esteem" that has swept the country in recent decades, it's true that at its best it is "a mantra of tolerance and acceptance unprecedented in our history." The pop-psychological language in which the idea is often couched is off-putting, but the idea itself has merit.

Metcalf has written an appealing and informative history of OK. Like others who write about language, he gets a little fey at times, and he does a great deal of quoting, some of which appears to be little more than padding aimed at making a slender book a bit less so, but the strengths of "OK" outweigh its weaknesses. It's not an OK book, it's a good one.

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