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

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 31 Jan 2011 11:03:12 +0000 (GMT)

"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."

Quinion writes at the given link:-

"What ensured that this one example survived out of many in a hugely popular 
but short-lived fashion was that it was picked up by the Democrats in New York. 
They created a body called the Democratic OK Club to support their candidate, 
Martin Van Buren, who was standing for re-election in the 1840 presidential 
election against William Henry Harrison. OK here actually stood for “Old 
Kinderhook”, Van Buren’s nickname, taken from Kinderhook, his birthplace near 
Albany in New York State. The abbreviation became widely used during the 
campaign and survived Van Buren’s losing the election."

It is the last sentence that might do with some expanding to explain how it was 
used and how it survived, neither of which is made very clear (particularly as 
we are told its adoption by the D OK Club was crucial to its survival but here 
it meant "Old Kinderhook": so how did this adoption lead to its survival as a 
term with its present, different meaning?). 

In the spirit of this etymological spaghetti, one of the less publicised 
Wikileaks involved WhiteHouse/CIA/NASA correspondence about what would be 
appropriate words for the first astronauts to use (you didn't think Armstrong 
made up "One small step etc." on the spot?) and it was decided that a simple, 
universally recognisable but American term should be the first words on the 
moon - "OK". The relevant bodies could not agree on how this be spelt and 
argued about this ["OK" "Okay" "O.K."} until it was eventually agreed this did 
not matter as the word would only be spoken. There was also discussion of what 
was the all-correct form of the hand gesture that the astronaut should use to 
confirm his "OK", the one where the thumb and first finger form a circle being 
preferred over a thumbs up as the latter is an offensive gesture in many 


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