Party at the OK Corral

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From left, Rodney Dangerfield, Mary Lou Retton, and Yasir Arafat give the “OK” sign. From left: Courtesy of Everett Collection; Neal Preston / Corbis; Pascal Parrot / Sygma-Corbis

Allan Metcalf’s new book claims that the word “OK” is America’s greatest invention. This offers a pair of provocations. How can “OK” be an invention? On a certain day, a certain guy just dreamed up the expression that has become the most frequently spoken word on the planet? And even if it is an invention, can one little word really be greater than jazz, baseball, and the telephone? Is it better than The Simpsons?

The answer to the first question, implausible as it sounds, is yes. In OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, Metcalf locates the first use of OK in an obscure corner of a Boston newspaper on March 23, 1839. As for the reputed greatness of the word, Metcalf’s slim volume doesn’t entirely persuade you that OK is a more valuable invention than, say, electric light. But the fact that he even raises the question is intriguing. If it does nothing else, Metcalf makes you acutely aware of how ubiquitous and vital the word has become. Once you start noticing OK, you risk becoming like the knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who erupt every time somebody says the word “it.”

True story: the world’s most popular word began as a joke. In the late 1830s, America’s newspapers had a mania for abbreviations—also, to judge by Metcalf’s account, a sorry sense of humor. He devotes a chapter to trying to explain why readers of the Boston Morning Post might have been amused to see “o. k.” used as a jokey abbreviation for “oll korrect,” an intentional misspelling of “all correct.” Apparently you had to be there. But the word soon got an enormous boost from Andrew Jackson—or his enemies, anyway. They circulated the rumor that the man of the people was barely literate and approved papers with the initials “O.K.” for “oll korrect.” It was a hoax, Metcalf concludes, “but without it there’d be no OK.”

The word didn’t remain a joke for long. Telegraph operators began using it as a way to say “all clear.” It became ubiquitous, turning up in all corners of the world, and beyond. Metcalf points out that OK was technically the first word spoken on the surface of the moon; it also immediately preceded Todd Beamer’s heroic charge on 9/11 (“OK, let’s roll.”). To stand out in conversation now, it needs some frippery, like Ned Flanders’s “okely dokely.”

What gives this little word its immense and polymorphous appeal? Metcalf offers a couple of explanations, like its aesthetic contrasts: “A circle with an asterisk. Smooth oval, cluster of sticks. Feminine O, masculine K.” It also consists of a series of sounds that can be uttered in almost every language. Meanwhile technology continues to urge it along. Early Apple programmers let users click on two buttons: “Do It” or “Cancel.” When a tester pointed to “Do It” and asked why the computer was calling him a dolt, the “OK” button was born. Now, in the world of the ubiquitous text message, it’s increasingly just “k.”

When you pause to consider what a weird and wonderful little word OK is, the most remarkable thing isn’t that it’s so great or that it was invented but that it’s American. To foreigners in the 20th century, Metcalf writes, the word embodied “American simplicity, pragmatism, and optimism.” To us today, the word encapsulates “a whole two-letter American philosophy of tolerance, even admiration for difference.” Metcalf’s book could use more along these lines. In a time as fractious as this, it’s encouraging to think that two little syllables can help us bridge our differences. Are there worse sayings to rally behind? You betcha.

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