[lit-ideas] America's Greatest Word

  • From: Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sat, 29 Jan 2011 12:07:09 EST

Metcalf thinks 'OK' is "America's greatest  work". Some disagree (*).

From today's World Wide Words, ed.  M. Quinion:

"In OK, Allan Metcalf tells the story of the most famous and  widely 
used abbreviation in the English language. The cover calls it an  
"improbable story" and there are enough improbables in the tale to  
satisfy any reader."

"As Allan Metcalf has written elsewhere, "It's  improbable that a 
casual attempt at humor with a deliberately misspelled  abbreviation 
in 1839 should have been drafted for the presidential election  of 
1840 ("Old Kinderhook", Martin Van Buren) and then be the subject 
of  a hoax (that Andrew Jackson couldn't spell so he marked "OK" for 
"all  correct" on documents) that led to people actually marking OK 
on documents  and in telegraphy." And, even more improbably, to its 
now being understood  worldwide, even where English isn't spoken, 
and to its having been the first  word spoken on the Moon."

"Many writers on etymology have summarised the  story of this curious 
term. My own is at http://wwwords.org?OKOK and so  obviates the need 
to repeat its history in more detail. Its origin has been  known 
since the 1960s, when the American lexicographer Allen Walker Read  
found clues through a careful reading of Boston newspapers of the 
late  1830s. Despite this, many folk-etymological tales are told 
about its origin  - that it's from Greek, or Choctaw, or French, or 
Scots, or that's it's  short for the German "Oberst Kommandant", or 
from the initials of "Orrin  Kendall" biscuits or of the freight 
agent Obadiah Kelly. These result from  its true history having been 
lost for more than a  century."

"Metcalf's book is the most complete of the various  explanations 
that have appeared, the first ever in book form, more detailed  in 
some respects even than Read's original papers. Within its pages 
you  will find, for example, the highly improbable ABRS, the Anti-
Bell-Ringing  Society of Boston; a news story about it in the Boston 
Morning Post on 23  March 1839 included the first-ever use of "OK" 
as a joking abbreviation of  "all correct"."

"Metcalf takes the story on, chapter by chapter, through  the 1840 
election, the calumnies about Andrew Jackson's supposedly being  
unable to spell, the various untruths about its provenance and its  
acceptance by railway telegraphers who leapt on it as a usefully 
brief  way to signal the safe arrival of trains. He charts its move 
into the  literary world (improbably, the first author to use it was 
Henry David  Thoreau in Walden in 1854), its extension into slangy 
humorous forms such as  "okey-dokey", and its modern adoption in 
computers, in which "OK" is a  ubiquitous caption for any button 
requesting acceptance."

"OK is  indeed the most improbable of expressions, created as a lame 
joke and  surviving by a series of unlikely coincidences to become a 
worldwide symbol  of American English."

[Allan Metcalf, OK: The Improbable Story of  America's Greatest 
Word; published by Oxford University Press; hardback,  pp210 
including index; ISBN 978-0-1953-7793-4; publishers" price $18.85  
(US), £12.99 (UK).]

(* -- there are OTHER words that compete with  "OK" in their (greatest) 
Americanness. Ask Geary).  
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