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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.