America’s greatest word, OK, is its most powerful word too, and in many ways it’s the most peculiar.
As for power, just look at what OK did to the preceding sentence. OK exploded the sentence because it has so many possible meanings. In this case, I just wanted to identify America’s most powerful word by naming it in an appositive. But it wasn’t content to lie there like an entry in a dictionary.
No, OK had to transform itself into an affirmation OK; it really is America’s greatest. OK, are you paying attention? OK, can you accept this? Or a dramatic-pause OK, as in OK, I’m about to tell you. All because OK is flexing its muscles.
As for peculiarity, what other word has such a strange origin? Born on Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post for Saturday, March 23, 1839, as “o. k.” with the gloss immediately following: “all correct.” It must have been a dull spring in Boston in 1839 to imagine that as a brilliant stroke of humor.
The amazing thing is that this incorrect abbreviation of “all correct” should catch on so quickly and become a well-known expression within a year. It was helped in that next year by Martin Van Buren, running for re-election to the presidency. His supporters, noting that he was from Kinderhook, N.Y., began calling him “Old Kinderhook,” OK for short. Martin lost to “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” William Henry Harrison, who clearly had the better slogan, but OK was the winner in vocabulary.
All through the 19th century, OK was spelled that way, with variation between capital letters and lower case, and periods or no periods, and space or no space; but always with just two letters, reminding readers of its origins as the abbreviation of a phrase.
Only one 19th-century exception to the two-letter rule has been noticed: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, published in 1869, has one instance of the spelling okay. Even that one was omitted in the second edition.
In the 20th century, the four-letter okay began to appear as an alternative. The Corpus of Historical American English, a sample of some 400 million words in a wide variety of publications made available free online by Brigham Young University, finds exactly zero instances of okay before 1900.
Then it shows a gradual increase in frequency throughout the century, with these numbers per decade:
1900s . . 1
1910s . . 0
1920s . . 2
1930s . . 322
1940s . . 721
1950s . . 1,045
1960s . . 1,463
1970s . . 1,946
1980s . . 2,340
1990s . . 3783
2000s . . 4,699
This doesn’t mean that the two-letter OK is disappearing completely. Another free source of statistics on vocabulary, Google Ngrams, shows the form OK steeply increasing in print since about 1960.
But the increase has been even greater for okay, which now appears more often than OK in print.
Why this trend? I think the reason is simple: Okay looks a lot more like an ordinary word than does the obscure abbreviation OK.
Just look around. Aren’t the okays beginning to invade our sentences, disguised as regular words? Yes, in former times somehow OK wasn’t a word to use routinely in print, except when recording speech. But in this century, okay will have donned sheeps’ clothing, concealed itself in the Trojan Horse; it will be the Pinocchio of words.