[lit-ideas] Re: America's Greatest Word

  • From: Mike Geary <jejunejesuit.geary2@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 30 Jan 2011 22:39:32 -0600

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

Sure.  There's "dagnabbit" and "zipadidoda" and
"supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "galllldurn" and  "zowie" and

Enough for now.  Pleased as punch to be of assistance,

Mike Geary

On Sat, Jan 29, 2011 at 11:07 AM, <Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx> wrote:

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