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February 18, 2011 3:59 PM   Subscribe

How 'OK' took over the world. 'It crops up in our speech dozens of times every day, although it apparently means little. So how did the word "OK" conquer the world, asks Allan Metcalf', author of OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word. 'On 23 March 1839, OK was introduced to the world on the second page of the Boston Morning Post, in the midst of a long paragraph, as "o.k. (all correct)". How this weak joke survived at all, instead of vanishing like its counterparts, is a matter of lucky coincidence involving the American presidential election of 1840.'

'And any lingering stigma associated with OK is long since gone. Now OK is not out of place in the mouth of a US president like Barack Obama.' 'The word would also easily slip from the mouth of a British prime minister like David Cameron.

And yet, despite its conquest of conversations the world over, there remain vast areas of language where OK is scarcely to be found.

You won't find OK in prepared speeches. Indeed, most formal speeches and reports are free of OK.

Modern English translations of the Bible remain almost entirely OK-free. Many a published book has not a single instance of OK.

But OK still rules over the vast domain of our conversation.'
posted by VikingSword (69 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm not okay with this.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 4:03 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was OK. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:06 PM on February 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


I hate that in Scrabble OKEH is good but OKAY is not.
posted by quarterframer at 4:07 PM on February 18, 2011


This makes me want some OK Cola real bad.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:09 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


okely dokely.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:10 PM on February 18, 2011


smokey dokes
posted by clavdivs at 4:11 PM on February 18, 2011


Martin Van Buren called, he wants a residual.
posted by clavdivs at 4:12 PM on February 18, 2011


Don't forget the corral.
posted by doctor_negative at 4:13 PM on February 18, 2011


I'm a lumberjack, and...
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:16 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's also cool how now "okay" kind of means the opposite of "ok".
posted by amethysts at 4:27 PM on February 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


The Snopes forums and the Straight Dope more or less agree with this take.
posted by rkent at 4:34 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's also cool how now "okay" kind of means the opposite of "ok".

What do you mean by this - that 'okay' is sarcastic?
posted by item at 4:44 PM on February 18, 2011


US Presidents have helped bring a surprising amount of slang into the common parlance. Fro example, Andrew Jackson is counted amongst one of the first to use the word "cocksucker" to refer to an opponent. And Woodrow Wilson famously used the word "douchenozzle" to describe Nelson Aldrich during the 1915 State of the Union address. And, of course, literally millions of Americans have called George W. Bush "dingus" since he assumed office in 2001.
posted by chasing at 4:53 PM on February 18, 2011 [8 favorites]


Actually, OK was invented by a team of scientists at Monsanto. OK had little commercial success except in Oklahoma, where it became almost synonymous with the State itself. Previously Monsanto scientists and engineers attempted to market OJ, but were only able to gather a small share of the orange juice market. They followed this with OL, which had little commercial success until an additional L was added as a prefix. Today, LOL is understood the world around.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:09 PM on February 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Fro example, Andrew Jackson is counted amongst one of the first to use the word "cocksucker" to refer to an opponent.

that's misleading - andy was referring to his opponent's tendency to buy poor breeding stock for his poultry farm
posted by pyramid termite at 5:22 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's not that "okay" is necessarily sarcastic but when it's drawn out like that it usually signifies (to me, at least, maybe I'm way off) something more like "Well, I guess, but I have misgivings." rather than "I am more or less on board" signified by "ok".
posted by amethysts at 5:24 PM on February 18, 2011


I just had a vision of a president or prime minister uttering 'dude' or 'bitchin' or 'LOL' in a hundred years and sounding stately and proper.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:25 PM on February 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


YA YO AY OY KA YAK YOK OKAY KAYO are all acceptable in scrabble (USA) but OK is a Phoney
posted by lalochezia at 5:34 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Okay" isn't the drawn-out version of "OK", it's the spelled-out version. Slightly more formal, but pronounced the same.

"Okayyyyyyyy…" or "oooooookay…" (with that being an extended "oh" sound not an "oo") are the drawn-out versions.
posted by Lexica at 5:45 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


there was a false tale that a previous American president couldn't spell properly and thus would approve documents with an "OK", thinking it was the abbreviation for "all correct".

Does anyone know which president?
posted by surenoproblem at 5:52 PM on February 18, 2011


That book sounds dull as hell.
posted by broken wheelchair at 5:52 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't care how it started, but it needs to stay the hell out of dialog boxes.
posted by Mikey-San at 6:05 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Does anyone know which president?

iwon'tmakeageorgewbushjokeiwon'tmakeageorgewbushjokeiwon'tmakeageorgewbushjoke
posted by Mikey-San at 6:07 PM on February 18, 2011


"Fun and educational!" --Language Hat

If that's not an endorsement, I don't know what is! :-D
posted by Scientist at 6:17 PM on February 18, 2011


OK rules, OK?
posted by defenestration at 6:33 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Fuck" is the worst word that you can say, so just use the word "mkay."
posted by rlk at 7:09 PM on February 18, 2011


The President also known as "Old Kinderhook."
posted by jtron at 7:10 PM on February 18, 2011


You hear "OK" all the time in Rome -- people on the bus speaking rapidfire Romanesco on their telefonino will pepper the conversation with "okai...okai, si, okai...". At first, when people I was speaking to said it, I thought maybe they were mocking me, but then I overheard it in enough Italian-to-Italian conversations that I realized it has just become a part of the lexicon.
posted by katemonster at 7:13 PM on February 18, 2011


"The expression pronounced "okay" and denoting affirmation — "it is so and not otherwise" — appears in Choctaw literature more than a decade before the acronym or pseudo-acronym "O.K." appears in English literature."

It means "It is so, and in no other way" - and used as an interjection, or an informal expression of thanks. Ol' Hickory asked 'em how they liked whupping on the British, as they were our allies during the war of 1812, and they replied, "Okeh!"
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:34 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


"That's a copy jackass leader."
posted by I love you more when I eat paint chips at 7:37 PM on February 18, 2011



"Fuck" is the worst word that you can say, so just use the word "mkay."

Nope.

At least in my North Texas world, the award goes to:

Ni**** and Cu**
posted by Benway at 7:52 PM on February 18, 2011


God I hate Scrabble.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:01 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have an unhealthy habit of always shortening OK to just "k", which bumps into my equally bad habit of substituting what little Spanish I know when I say "what?"

Mix that with equal parts low voice and propensity for mumbling and it sounds like I'm constantly calling things "gay", which really, I'm not.
posted by hafehd at 8:07 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Okay" isn't the drawn-out version of "OK", it's the spelled-out version. Slightly more formal, but pronounced the same.

ok
posted by amethysts at 8:27 PM on February 18, 2011


OK probably persists because it has desirable signal characteristics in a noisy channel. The O sets up an open baseline which distinguishes the utterance from white noise and the voiceless velar plosive K determines the end of the utterance. It has a pure noise-resistant gestalt which would survive intercultural transmission regardless of its significance in any one particular language.
posted by twoleftfeet at 8:28 PM on February 18, 2011 [12 favorites]


Ten-four to that!
posted by Curious Artificer at 8:40 PM on February 18, 2011


Metafilter: Voiceless velar plosiv K



I've never done that before.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:04 PM on February 18, 2011


We gravitate to the "OK" because the "O" grabs our interest as a unifying whole, a great circle that signifies life, death, and infinity. The whole of human existence. And this is followed the the great "K" -- a vicious killer, a knife slicing into the soul. "K." The killer. An abrupt, unjust, and dare I say evil end to consciousness. Piercing into the pure and virginal "O." Such drama defines not only our individual humanity, but our collective civilization -- and it signifies something so philosophically encompassing that we can do nothing but accept that in an objective sense it is the alpha, it is the omega, and its mere utterance says, "Whatever you said, whatever that is, whatever it will be -- it is... OK."
posted by chasing at 9:13 PM on February 18, 2011 [8 favorites]


An abrupt, unjust, and dare I say evil end to consciousness

That's a KO.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:54 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Actually, if anyone is interested, OK has pretty healthy representation in Japanese too, and is a semi-rarity in the sense that it is written using roman characters ("romaji") rather than one of Japanese's native writing forms, and moreover basically means exactly what it means when used in English unlike all those other goddamn Japanese words which are currently driving me up the wall cause they don't quite mean the same thing as their English "equivalents" cursed language
posted by dubitable at 10:01 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Speaking of Japanese, it is peculiar that the greeting "Hi" is so ubiquitously used despite its similar pronunciation to the most spoken word in their language (in my anecdotal experience):
"Hai," meaning yes, pronounced in a more explosive manner. Sometimes dramatically so.

Another word even more common - in other cultures, as well, and despite its somewhat childish cachet - is "bye-bye."
posted by kozad at 10:32 PM on February 18, 2011


>>It's also cool how now "okay" kind of means the opposite of "ok".

>What do you mean by this - that 'okay' is sarcastic?


It can convey either excellence or mediocrity. See also alright.

Jesus is just okay with me.
Jesus is just okay, oh yeah.
Jesus is just okay with me.
Jesus is just okay.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:35 PM on February 18, 2011


vale, vale, vale.
posted by melt away at 11:42 PM on February 18, 2011


Bye bye is a rotation of dag dag, its equivalent in my native language.
So now you now were bye bye comes from.
posted by joost de vries at 12:58 AM on February 19, 2011


No worries

I used 'okay' today in response to a text message from a girl I like. It felt weird, since it ended the conversation. But I couldn't think of anything else to say. Just sending that one word as a text feels... off
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 1:55 AM on February 19, 2011


When I teach little Japanese kids "bye bye" along with other English greetings, they sometimes start to giggle and then explain to me that "bye bye" is a Japanese phrase. Occasionally they then wonder aloud when it was imported to America.
posted by Muttoneer at 4:01 AM on February 19, 2011


Ook.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:36 AM on February 19, 2011


Never mind "OK", when did "awesome" become so ubiquitous in American speech? It seems to be used by every age group and social class as almost their one and only term of approval - one step up from "cool" and the polar opposite of "really sucks".

Someone once told me that the term first caught on in the wake of a surfer movie - 1991's Point Break, maybe? - but can that really be all it takes to drive every rival term to near-extinction or stay so popular for so long? Just listen out for the number of times you hear it in the next few days - you'll be amazed.
posted by Paul Slade at 5:34 AM on February 19, 2011


More like a 1960's surfer movie, maybe. It has been around in that form since before 1991.

That usage really isn't that much different from its classic meaning: something that fills one with great awe.
posted by gjc at 5:48 AM on February 19, 2011


I wasn't suggesting that Point Blank introduced the term from scratch - merely that it made an existing term much, much more popular.

Far from suggesting awe's dictionary definition of "overwhelming wonder, admiration, respect or dread", the term's now applied to anything that's more or less satisfactory. If a run-of-the-mill TV show, a plate of fries or your friend handing you a beer can be described as "awesome" then what term are you left with when something truly remarkable happens?
posted by Paul Slade at 6:24 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would like to see us english adoption of the Spanish "claro" as an alternative, because to me it's got a poetic ring like a short "cellar door". Only I think the ar is probably hard to get right in a running English conversation without sounding like an actual shift into Spanish.. So it might end up either rhyming with Otto or Pharaoh. Not nearly as sexy.
posted by condour75 at 7:05 AM on February 19, 2011


Best use of OK ever is on the rear mudflaps of Indian transport trucks and the back panels of autorickshaws, which often read: "HORN OK PLEASE." (Near as I could tell, this was to indicate the driver welcomed you to use your horn to indicate you were about to pass, which is the default way to do so on Indian roads anyway.)

Somehow it just wouldn't be the same if it just read "Horn Please." The OK makes it colloquial and charming, also just a tiny little bit beseeching. Horn, OK? Please?

Here's a promo spot for Indian satellite MTV knockoff Channel V from around 2000 that celebrates the phenomenon: "Louie Louie" by the Horn OK Please Orchestra. Awesome.
posted by gompa at 7:30 AM on February 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Nobody tell Paul Slade about the changing meanings of "awful" over the years, his head will explode.
posted by jtron at 8:09 AM on February 19, 2011


Or "nice," for that matter.
posted by jtron at 8:10 AM on February 19, 2011


As far as I can tell, OK is, like, being replaced.
posted by wallstreet1929 at 8:43 AM on February 19, 2011


Jtron said: "Nobody tell Paul Slade about the changing meanings of "awful" over the years, his head will explode."

I'll risk it. What are they?
posted by Paul Slade at 9:05 AM on February 19, 2011


At least in my part of the Bible Belt, "awesome" seems to have taken off in recent years (as in, since 1990 or so) with evangelical Protestants, many of whom pepper their conversations with references to their "awesome God". Even when used in contexts that are not explicitly religious, it frequently has those connotations (and is pronounced ever-so-slightly differently from surfer-type "awesome", which is also used here).

Paul Slade: "Awful" used to mean awe-inspiring, inspiring reverence or fear; "nice" was formerly "fastidious or scrupulous". The former had that meaning in some of Jane Austen's novels, while the latter's use was already changing and was the subject of a scene in Northanger Abbey:

"Not very good, I am afraid. But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?"

"The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding."

"Henry," said Miss Tilney, "you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word 'nicest,' as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way."

"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?"

"Very true," said Henry, "and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word."

"While, in fact," cried his sister, "it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise. Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best. It is a most interesting work. You are fond of that kind of reading?"

posted by katemonster at 9:37 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Forget awesome. When did genius become an adjective?

(The answer is NEVER. The word is ingenious, you mooks.)
posted by Sys Rq at 10:14 AM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Mr. Gorbachev: Tear down this wall, OK?
posted by manguero at 10:32 AM on February 19, 2011


I had a professor who graded assignments with a weird system. A check mark indicated, that it was, in his words, "Just, ehhh..." (said with a tone of dissatisfaction). But an OK indicated that it was "Okay!" (said enthusiastically, with a little "hurrah" of the forearm and fist). Those were the only two marks, and I found their relationship completely counterintuitive.
posted by manguero at 10:36 AM on February 19, 2011


"Okay" isn't the drawn-out version of "OK", it's the spelled-out version. Slightly more formal, but pronounced the same.

...And the etymology presented in the article demonstrates how idiotic that "spelling out" is. It's an example of someone at some point thinking that a legitimate but nonconforming word needed to be normalized. Okay is both longer/less efficient word and completely unnecessary.

What I really want to know is, how is okay more formal than OK? It's still perceived as casual speech.
posted by me3dia at 2:27 PM on February 19, 2011


Personally, I just prefer okay because it works better typographically; it doesn't dominate a line of type the way OK does.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:33 PM on February 19, 2011


(And, really, the farther it gets from its stupid origin, the better. It's no longer a quasi-humorous abbreviation, anyway; it's a real-ass word.)
posted by Sys Rq at 2:37 PM on February 19, 2011


Sure, but that doesn't mean it needs its spelling changed. It was already a "real-ass" word.
posted by me3dia at 2:50 PM on February 19, 2011


I mean "real-ass word" as opposed to an acronym.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:52 PM on February 19, 2011


Great, another OK Trends post.
posted by the_bone at 3:03 PM on February 19, 2011


Just as radar and scuba have replaced the acronyms they originally stood for, OK is no longer an acronym either. It just happens to have retained its capitalization. "Okay" replaces a word with its dictionary-style phonetic pronunciation.
posted by me3dia at 3:08 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Never mind "OK", when did "awesome" become so ubiquitous in American speech? It seems to be used by every age group and social class as almost their one and only term of approval - one step up from "cool" and the polar opposite of "really sucks".

Someone once told me that the term first caught on in the wake of a surfer movie - 1991's Point Break, maybe? - but can that really be all it takes to drive every rival term to near-extinction or stay so popular for so long?


We were using the phrase in high school in the 80's in California. I very much doubt that you can pinpoint the usage of a word to a single thing like Point Break - I've never seen Point Break, and I don't know anyone who has. It's just a word that has become more and more common over the last few decades.

Forget awesome. When did genius become an adjective?

(The answer is NEVER. The word is ingenious, you mooks.)


Eh, the slang term "genius" is not meant to be "ingenious". It's probably the shortening of a phrase like
(that song is)a work of pure genius!,
to (that song is) pure genius! ,
and finally (that song is) genius!.
Those phrases aren't really synonymous to (that song is) ingenious.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:38 PM on February 19, 2011


Those phrases aren't really synonymous to (that song is) ingenious.

What? Yes they are!
posted by Sys Rq at 7:33 PM on February 19, 2011


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