How two little letters took over the world
It is an adjective, a verb, an adverb, a noun and an interjection. It is everywhere and it is taken for granted. It is spelt with two or four letters, in capitals or lower case, with or without full points. It is OK, alias O.K., ok, o.k. and okay.
In OK, his biography of the world's hardest-working word, Allan Metcalf, an American professor of English, sorts out the real birth of OK from the false, if intriguing, reports of its creation that have surfaced over the past two centuries.
The first sighting was on March 23, 1839, in italics in the Boston Morning Post. In a virtually incomprehensible paragraph, the editor promised that, if a spoof organisation known as the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society were to visit his town, the festivities greeting it would be "o.k.", which he spelt out for his bemused readers as "all correct".
His jest (if that's the right word for it) was that the initials were of the misspelling "orl korrect"; just as today's text-messagers use "LOL" and "WTF", there was then a craze for wacky acronyms. "O.W." (all right) is an example of one that flourished and withered, but OK spread like a seed in spring to newspapers in New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
It was the 1840 US election campaign that made it go viral.
President Martin Van Buren, a Democrat standing for a second term, was in his late 1950s and hailed from the town of Kinderhook. He therefore campaigned as "Old Kinderhook", alias a snappy "OK".
His political opponents promptly hijacked the slogan and declared that the two letters in fact stood for "Out of Kash", "Out of Kredit" and – pretending that OK originated from an Arabic word and read from right to left – "Kicked Out". And kicked out poor Old Kinderhook was.
OK itself had a new lease of life in the shape of another spoof, this time about the Democrat and former president General Jackson, a man of humble origins who was unfairly accused of being a remedial speller. A New York Morning Herald joker declared that OK derived from his custom of marking it on official papers to signify they were "Ole Kurrek". This derivation was taken seriously and recycled somewhat inaccurately by, among others, the Boston Atlas – that is, in the town where the real OK had been created.
Other inaccurate derivations were claimed: it hailed from Ancient Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Choktaw and Scottish ("och aye"). All this added to the attractions of the neat, agreeable and positive word that soon became common currency in American and British life and art.
In the UK it was an 1870 music hall song by "The Great Vance" which put it on the linguistic map in a ditty declaring that "The O,K, thing on Sunday is the Walking in the Zoo".
The great man had not quite got the hang of the word, since he used commas instead of the grammatically correct full stops. However, he had obviously got the meaning absolutely "okely-dokely", as Ned Flanders in The Simpsons would put it later: the special part of strolling through Regent's Park Zoo on the Sabbath was that this was the day when the common "Cads" were banned and only members of the Zoological Society were allowed in.
The word took some time to reach the upper classes, if we trust Julian Fellowes in his Gosford Park script. Asked if she is OK, a baffled countess needs her maid to interpret. Back in the United States, Harvard formed an "OK Club". Chevrolet dealers promised: "This is an ok used car."
OK brings down the curtain as the final word in – naturally – Oklahoma! and it was the first word spoken on the moon ("OK. Engine stop."). And how about the "Rules OK" graffiti, which have been on walls since the 1930s? "Dyslexia Rules KO" is my favourite.