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OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word Paperback – 12 Jul 2012


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A virtuoso display of linguistic scholarship. (The Sunday Telegraph)

About the Author

is Professor of English at MacMurray College and Executive Secretary of the American Dialect Society. He is the author of many other books on language, including most recently

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Amazon.com: 7 reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Something More Than OK 14 Dec 2010
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
You have probably said, heard, or read sometime in the last day the word "OK." It is said, according to English professor Allan Metcalf, to be the most frequently spoken (or typed) word in the world. It might even be a whole philosophy of life. Well, Metcalf gets carried away with this little word, about which he has thought a great deal, and has produced _OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word_ (Oxford University Press). OK is a peculiar word in many ways, all of them evaluated here. Its frequency of use shows that it is filling an important niche, getting a meaning across when no other word will quite fit. Metcalf's book is like its subject, brisk, clear, and informal. Etymology and word usage may not be your idea of fun, but he has made them entertaining.

OK is a word invented by one person, and the person is known and the first use is known. This is not the way language usually works. Words seldom get invented, but in Boston in March 1839, there was an editor of the _Boston Post_, one Charles Gordon Greene, who wrote an editorial on some controversy now long forgotten. Specifically on 23 March 1839, he included the phrase "o.k.," and then immediately defined it as "all correct." The joke is that o.k. would stand for something being "all correct" when there's no O or K involved, that if it were really "all correct" it would be "a.c.," so OK is actually not correct at all, but it is all correct. It might have remained a joke word and been forgotten when the joke grew stale, except for peculiar and unique circumstances. There was a presidential campaign in 1840 in which Martin Van Buren, from Kinderhook, New York, became known as "Old Kinderhook," and the campaign used the new word, for they certainly wished voters to think that Old Kinderhook was OK. Then the "OK as a joke" got expanded to take in another presidential candidate, Andrew Jackson. He was a log-cabin type, the story went, with so little education that he could not spell worth a lick. He had coined OK for his misspelling of "all correct": "ole kurrek." It was a slander on Jackson, enjoyed by his political enemies, but there are still plenty of people that believe that he was the source of the word; there is not even documentation that Jackson ever used OK, much less invented it. The abbreviation got a boost in usage when it showed its utility in the new communication system of telegraphy, and became a standard. It shows no sign of ever leaving. The etymology of OK is so peculiar and its popularity so great that besides the Jackson explanation, people have been coming up with other explanations of its origin. Metcalf devotes a whole chapter to false etymologies, and warns, "If you want to know only the facts about OK, you can skip this chapter. It is filled with untruths." Someone found an O and a K as a countersign on a Revolutionary War document, and that was the start. Someone else found reason to think it came from the Choctaw language, and others found origins in French, or German, Finnish, Norwegian, Danish, Scots English, Greek, and more. Perhaps shipbuilders were the source since the first timber laid was labeled OK, for going to the Outer Keel. Or perhaps it was the name happily given to sailors for rum from Aux Cayes, a port in Haiti.

The false etymologies are entertaining, and so are the many other odd facts Metcalf has found. One of the most famous locales in the Wild West is the OK Corral in Tombstone. No one knows why the owner named it that; he might have just been using a familiar term. The cowboys involved, including three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, did not have their gunfight there, although some of them had spent time at the OK Corral before the shooting started. A surprising number of communities have glee clubs or barbershop quartets named The OK Chorale. A colloquial translation of the Bible does not advise, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean," but instead, "If God says it's OK, it's OK." Coca-Cola testmarketed OK Soda in the 1990s, thinking to take advantage of the world's most used term of approval, but it went nowhere. You won't find OK even in the dialect written by Mark Twain or Bret Harte; it shows up once in Thoreau and once in Louisa May Alcott, but it was edited away both times. OK was the first word spoken from the moon. If OK is not short enough, plenty of people just say "'k." And, as The Dude says in _The Big Lebowski_, "if you're not into the whole brevity thing," people have been adding bits and pieces to make OK longer, like AOK or Okey-Doke, Okey-Dokey, or (on _The Simpsons_) Okely-Dokely. Metcalf has written a useful and amusing appreciation for a word whose world-wide and universal usage and unique etymology make it far more than OK.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Cheerfully informative 24 Nov 2010
By Jon Hunt - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
It's hard to fathom that a short word like "ok" could conjure up two hundred pages of prose, but it does in Allan Metcalf's entertaining new book "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word". The transformation of this word since its first "discovery" in the mid-1800s forms a rational basis for Metcalf's presentation and it's a successful effort.

1839 brought us the supposed invention of baseball by Abner Doubleday but it is also a year where "ok" made its first appearance...in an article printed in the Boston Morning Post. One thing that author Metcalf would like us to remember is that this is, indeed, where "ok" was first found. Helped along by the presidential campaign of 1840 where the incumbent president Martin Van Buren was assigned the nickname "Old Kinderhook", "ok", appeared with increasing popularity in the decade or two that followed.

Perhaps stemming from a parody of the phrase "oll korrect", "ok" has a value-free side, but as time went on it adopted a certain value...the "all ok" phrase so often found in early literature lessened over the years and now we find in so many instances that "ok" has developed a status of stasis.

Metcalf's book is rife with examples of American (and British) literature but it seemed to me that the present understanding of "ok" became clearest when Ring Lardner used it in his books of the early twentieth century. Could "ok" really have been the first words spoken by astronauts on the moon? A case for that can be found here.

While the history of "ok" is fascinating, Metcalf says little about the future of the word. Will it pass out of existence replaced by another expression of agreement or understanding? It may already have, to a degree. If you want your child to hurry up and get in the car to begin a trip you might ask him or her, "are you ready yet?" Instead of saying "ok", the child might very well answer, "no prob."

"OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word" is a delightful study and a pleasant read. I recommend it.
The true story of the origins and spread of OK 8 Jun 2014
By Bernd Lambert - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
People have trouble believing that such an important word originated as a lame newspaper joke, but Metcalf demonstrates that this was indeed the case. He also gives a lot of space to the many competing theories that happen to be false. The word begins with a Boston editor's attempt at humor, acquires political significance, becomes indispensable in business, and finally goes around the world.
The authority on OK! 22 Mar 2014
By Koolstudio68 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Interesting story of a widely used expression that most people never think about the origins of. It tells the story about Okay, and is inspirational to understanding the derivation of the English language and expressions in general.
4 of 10 people found the following review helpful
It was...ummm..OK... 30 May 2012
By Dave the L - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I never thought much about the expression "OK", so it was a little interesting to learn more. The author writes well, so it is readable, and a decent lunchtime diversion. Still...the book is an organic metaphor for OK. If that was the intention - Brilliant! Otherwise it was, well, OK.
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