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The iPad of Words

OK is the iPad of words.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPad in January 2010, it wasn’t in response to a call for “filling a gap” in computer technology. There were laptops and smartphones already. Who needed something in between?

It turned out that many people realized that they did. In barely a year and a half, the in-between device has become the main device for millions of people who discovered that they preferred something bigger than a smartphone but lighter than a laptop. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine the world of Internet communication without it.

Similarly, when Charles Gordon Greene invented the first “o. k.—all correct” for the Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839, it wasn’t in response to a call for filling a gap in the English language. There were many ways to indicate approval already. Who needed an expression that would convey acceptance without opinion? (Greene himself certainly hadn’t thought so; he was an accidental inventor, not a deliberate one like Jobs.)

Nevertheless, Greene’s creation likewise filled an unimagined gap. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine the world of human communication without OK.

Why is that?

After all, we can do without OK. Before 1839, everyone did. And even nowadays, we generally avoid it in formal speech and writing. But in conversation, as we negotiate our way through the day, we often employ volleys of OK.

That’s because OK is short, distinctive, and above all blessedly neutral. It withholds judgment. Neither enthusiastic nor grudging, OK simply signifies agreement: “Lunch at Blu Moon in Ludington, OK?” “OK.”

We discovered we needed that: something that doesn’t let different degrees of enthusiasm get in the way.

OK has developed other uses too. Speakers use it to call an audience to attention: “OK, please turn off your cellphones now,” or to alert their listeners that a summary, or a new topic, is coming: “OK, now let’s consider the impact of iPad on felines.”

And with the mantra of the only famous OK quotation, “I’m OK, you’re OK,” the title of a 1960s book by Thomas A. Harris, OK has become the voice of tolerance and diversity. We’ve mostly forgotten what that book was about (transactional analysis—you can look it up), or even that the sentiment comes from that book, but because of it we’re ready to say “You’re OK” even if you’re different from me—even if you’re of a different color or religion, even if you speak a different language, even if you’re a Democrat and I’m a Republican, or a Tea Partyer, or a teetotaler.

Its usefulness has made OK America’s greatest word, and not only that. It’s the world’s greatest word. It’s the only word in any language that has spread to almost all other languages. So even in remote regions of the world, where English isn’t the lingua franca, you can make yourself understood with OK.

OK? Check it out on your iPad!

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