OK, the Gentle Giant

OK cookiesIn the warm afterglow of the worldwide celebration of OK Day on Saturday (commemorating the birth of OK on Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post of Saturday, March 23, 1839), I can’t resist a few more words in praise of OK, that gentle giant.

OK is America’s greatest word. No other locution even comes close. I suppose the next greatest American word is jazz, the great-sounding word applied soon after its birth a century ago to the greatest American invention in music. But even if you’re a jazz musician, how often each day do you say jazz compared with OK?

OK owes its power to its distinctive form. It pairs a completely round letter with one composed entirely of straight lines. On a document it stands out more than most other initials would. And in speaking it’s simplicity itself, two simple long vowels (O and A) punctuated by that  most un-vowel-like of consonants, the stop consonant K.

Its distinctiveness in sound and spelling has made it immediately seem at home in other languages too, so it’s the world’s greatest word, not just America’s.

A word (or abbreviation, of “oll korrekt”) so distinctive ordinarily wouldn’t stand a chance of entering our vocabulary in the first place. It would be too odd. Only a weird set of circumstances in 1839 and 1840 let it slip in.

As I explained in my previous post (and at greater length in my book on OK), those circumstances had to do with the presidential election of 1840, where Martin Van Buren had “OK Clubs” echoing his newly chosen nickname “Old Kinderhook,” referring to his home town of Kinderhook, N.Y.

That was a crucial link to the modern OK. But another even more bizarre link was needed too. Van Buren had been a protégé of his predecessor Andrew Jackson. An anti-Jacksonian in 1840 made the false claim—an utter hoax, in fact—that Jackson was illiterate or at least a misspeller. So, the hoaxer declared, Jackson would look at papers and if he approved would say, “Mark on them OK,” meaning they were “Ole Kurrek.”

Diligent research has turned up no papers of Jackson’s so marked. But the story went viral and was widely believed for a long time to be the true origin of OK.

The amazing thing was that by the 1860s people were using OK seriously in that very way, for approving documents and messages. That practical use ensured its permanence in our language.

OK was not needed to fill a gap in our vocabulary. English speakers had done perfectly well without it before 1839. But it inspired a new way of looking at things and actions, OK or not OK, drawing a clear line between making do and not making do, but leaving degree of success unspecified. That’s why I said that in two letters it expresses the American philosophy of making do. It also teaches tolerance of diversity, ever since the title of the 1960s book I’m OK, You’re OK became a well-known slogan. And of course OK helps us reach accord on countless matters, large and small, every day.

But it is also a good word, a benevolent giant. It doesn’t browbeat. When you say “This is OK,” you’re not scolding, you’re accepting. Even if you say “This is not OK,” you’re not issuing a harsh criticism like “This is terrible.” OK is too plain and simple to deceive or twist meanings as some words do.

And it is humble as well as gentle. Are the letters OK too much in your face? Fine, it will humble itself to look like an ordinary word with the spelling okay, though that came later.

OK, enough of this. Enjoy your 175th year, OK, and we’ll celebrate again next March 23.

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