OK/Allan Metcalf/Oxford University Press
Review: Brian Joss
What do you think is the most frequently spoken or typed word? It’s the ubiquitous OK, and it has made its way across the world from America to Zimbabwe and points between.
It was even the first word spoken on the moon.You can read all about it in this engrossing volume, subtitled. The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, which started in 1839 as a weak joke in a newspaper article as an abbreviation for ‘oll korrect’.
Then it became the catchword for Martin Van Buren’s presidential campaign in 1840. Later it was picked up by telegraph operators and now it had firmly embedded itself wherever English is spoken and even where it isn't, and it is a standard icon on most computers.Ubiquitous though it is, Ok or okay, wasn’t the right word to use in formal discourse in the 19th century. It was considered slang and you won’t find the word in inauguration addresses of the presidents of America. Not even George W Bush, who was known for a blooper or two. However, Barack Obama has used it, but only on informal occasions.
It doesn’t appear in scholarly journals, except in reports of conversations, Metcalf points out.At one stage it was in danger of disappearing because it had sprouted so many meanings, but it was saved by a politician- General Andrew Jackson, who did make it to the White House- and another joke.
The creator of OK was Gerald Gordon Greene, the editor of the Morning Post in Boston, but it was left to another newspaper, the Providence Journal, to revive it a few years later.The invention of OK has been attributed to various people including the New York millionaire Jacob Astor, who used OK to initial documents. Forget the invention of the telegraph. the TV, the telephone, electric lighting and the hula hoop, none has more influence than OK, writes Metcalf. OK had many nuances and inflexions; it doesn’t just mean ‘oll korrect’. It all depends on how you say it and in what context. Ok is the embodiment of down-to-earth pragmatism and OK is the voice of tolerance.
Metcalf has written a hugely entertaining and erudite book on two small letters of the alphabet which is as American as Coca Cola.
It is a fascinating book and remember: Ok rules, okay.