Monday is the anniversary of the birth of the expression OK, 176 years ago, on the second page of the Boston Morning Post for Saturday, March 23, 1839. OK began as a joke, a deliberately misspelled abbreviation of “all correct.” And it remained a joke for the better part of a century, even as it was being put to serious use in OK-ing documents, train departures and arrivals, and wholesome products like Pyle’s O.K. Soap.
But that’s not the most important reason for celebrating OK. In all seriousness, OK contributes to making the world a better place, or at least more tolerable.
There was no “gap in the language” that OK was called on to fill. Before 1839, speakers of English (and the many other languages that have adopted OK) got along quite well without it. For an equivalent expression, they could, and we still can, say “all right.” (In the 1830s Boston newspapers had a humorous abbreviation a.w. for “all right,” but that quickly died out. Why OK persisted instead is a whole ‘nother story, having to do in part with the letter K.)
I have claimed that this OK is the two-letter essence of an American philosophy of pragmatism, of being concerned above all with getting things done. Something did not need to be perfect to be OK.
But to put it another way, OK introduced a new dividing line between success and failure. If an arrangement or a product is OK, it may be only a partial success, but it’s good enough to get by. Maybe very good, maybe just tolerable. The important thing is that the speaker or writer considers it satisfactory.
We use this OK all the time. If someone slips and falls, we immediately ask, “Are you OK?” And the downed person performs triage with a quick Yes or No—Yes, give me a minute and I’ll recover, or No, call an ambulance.
OK performs this function countless times every day as we coordinate meeting times and places. Like in Shakespeare: “OK, Caesar, see you in the Capitol on the ides”; “OK, Hamlet, I’ll join you on the watchtower at midnight.”
What is OK for one person, of course, may be quite different from what is OK for another. Negotiations are often necessary until everyone is OK with an arrangement. Some may be happy, others reluctant, but the arrangement isn’t definite until everyone has given the OK.
There are different ways of saying and writing OK to indicate different degrees of enthusiasm. I’ve heard from some members of the current millennial generation that texting “K” means grudging approval, “OK” means positive approval, and “okay” implies a degree of enthusiasm. At least those are the signals for some; others surely have different forms of OK for their friends, just as everyone can say OK aloud with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Since OK is known for this use around the world, it’s possible to arrange a picnic or safari with someone whose language you don’t know, all by using OK with appropriate inflections. How’s that for a universal language? A little easier to learn than Esperanto.
OK performs this important function, and many others, so efficiently and modestly that we hardly realize how much we depend on it. So let’s take one day to celebrate America’s and the world’s greatest word. OK?Return to Top