Friday - - Mind Games -

Quickly now – what is a common every­day word de­not­ing ap­proval, ac­cep­tance, agree­ment, as­sent, or ac­knowl­edg­ment? That would be ‘okay’, or OK. We use it all the time, and in ad­di­tion to the above, it also has other uses. This ex­tract comes from our ever-oblig­ing Wikipedia:

As an ad­jec­tive, “OK” means “ad­e­quate”, “ac­cept­able” (“this is OK to send out”), “medi­ocre” of­ten in con­trast to “good” (“the food was OK”); it also func­tions as an ad­verb in this sense. As an in­ter­jec­tion, it can de­note com­pli­ance (“OK, I will do that”), or agree­ment (“OK, that’s good”). As a verb and noun it means “as­sent” (“The boss okayed the pur­chase”, and, “The boss gave his OK to the pur­chase”). As a ver­sa­tile dis­course marker (or back-chan­nelling item), it can also be used with ap­pro­pri­ate voice tone to show doubt or to seek con­fir­ma­tion (“OK?” or “Is that OK?”). Not bad for a two-syl­la­ble word, eh?

Ear­lier this year – March, to be pre­cise – marked 175 years since OK – or, as some pre­fer, okay – first ap­peared in print, on page two of The Bos­ton Morn­ing Post, then one of the most popular news­pa­pers in the United States.

“I think OK should be cel­e­brated with pa­rades and speeches”, says Al­lan Met­calf, an English pro­fes­sor in Illi­nois who is the world’s lead­ing au­thor­ity on the his­tory and mean­ing of OK (such is the word’s ap­peal that we even have a spe­cial­ist!). He adds: “But for now, what­ever you do [to mark the an­niver­sary], it’s OK”. Right.

In his 2001 book, OK: The Im­prob­a­ble Story of Amer­ica’s Great­est Word, Met­calf calls OK “the most fre­quently spo­ken (or typed) word on the planet” – used more of­ten than “Coke” or an in­fant’s “ma”, a rev­e­la­tion that ought to have us view the word with a new re­spect.

Et­y­mo­log­i­cally, it has no di­rect re­la­tion­ship with Latin or Greek or any other an­cient tongue. Ox­ford Dic­tionar­ies, on its web­site, re­jects spec­u­la­tion that OK is de­rived from the Scot­tish ex­pres­sion och aye, the Greek ola kala (it’s good) or the French aux Cayes, which refers to a port in Haiti.

Rather, it favours a the­ory – shared by Met­calf – that it’s an ab­bre­vi­a­tion of orl ko­r­rekt, a de­riv­a­tive of “all cor­rect” from the 1830s when jokey mis­spellings were all the rage, like in­ter­net memes are to­day. More next week – OK?

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