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Thursday, April 7, 2011 07:52 pm

It’s OK in my book

Jacksonville professor explores ‘America’s greatest word’


MacMurray English professor Allan Metcalf.

A friend laughed when I said I was reading a book about OK. “I can see a paragraph,” he said, “but a whole book?”

Well, yes, that is exactly what Allan Metcalf, professor of English at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, has done – written a 200-page book called OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word (Oxford University Press, $18.95).

Is OK just two letters? Or four (as in okay)? Or is it a word? Sometimes it’s written in all caps (OK), sometimes with periods (O.K.), but no matter whether it’s OK, ok, O.K. or okay, there’s no confusion, even though it can mean many different things at different times and be said with different inflections.

It can be a noun (I give my OK.), a verb (The council will okay the budget at its meeting.), an adjective (I feel ok.) and even an interjection (OK! I get it.).

It can be positive – (OK. I got accepted.).

Or less so (It was OK, I guess.).

Show agreement (Yes, OK, you can go.).

Or not (Well, OK, I guess I’ll let you stay out late just this once.).

It can acknowledge and confirm (OK, I’ll meet you at 10.). Or acquiesce (OK, you win.) Show exuberance (OK, let’s go out and win!). Or ask a question (OK?).

As executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, Metcalf loves words and has written several intriguing books (America in So Many Words, in 1997, The World of Words, 1999, and Predicting New Words, 2002).

OK, a small book (5 x 7 ½ inches), is packed full of many interesting facts about OK, exploring its uses throughout history and giving examples from literature, speeches, poems and general everyday conversation. It makes for a fun read.

Where did OK originate? Metcalf explained on a recent interview on National Public Radio: “On the 23rd of March, 1839, in the Boston Morning Post, it was part of an elaborate joke that the editor was perpetrating on another editor. They had a lot of abbreviations that they were using and made up on the spot and thought they were terrifically funny, and OK was an abbreviation for all correct.”

Even though it had no connection to being an abbreviation, it took hold.

Then, President Martin van Buren from Kinderhook, N.Y., got the nickname Old Kinderhook and used it for his campaign for reelection. Metcalf explains: “Early in 1840, OK Clubs sprung up with the slogan, ‘OK is Okay.’ So, taking that funny little word and making it a mainstay of the political conversation in 1840, suddenly, OK was way OK.”
I asked Metcalf what made him choose OK for his book. He didn’t pause, “There is no question it is America’s greatest word. It’s the most successful word invented, used worldwide and daily. It is such a humble and modest word that doesn’t call attention to itself.”

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, published in 1869, was the first time the word was spelled as okay. As Amy realizes one of the sisters must marry someone rich, and vows, “So, I shall and make everything okay.” But, in a later edition (1880), “okay” was changed to “cozy,” perhaps the reason being, Metcalf says, to make the character sound more like a “gentlewoman.”

It was the first word spoken when the lunar module landed on the moon, July 20, 1969. After Neil Armstrong gave the command, “Shutdown,” Buzz Aldrin responded, “OK. Engine stop.”

From presidents’ speeches to professors’ marks, from authors to ad agencies, from the OK Saloon to the OK Salon, OK has entered our language with many different meanings. Metcalf has provided a fun look at a word we use often without even thinking.

Pick up the book and see if you think it is not just ok, but OK! OK?

Cinda Klickna serves as the secretary-treasurer of the Illinois Education Association. Previously, she taught English at Southeast High School.

Allan Metcalf will be presenting “OK What About It?” at the Quiddity Reading Series Event and Release Gala on April 14, 7 p.m. at the Brinkerhoff Home. The public is invited.

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