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Book review: 'O.K.: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word' by Allan Metcalf.

How did a two-letter word become 'America's most successful invention'? The author explores the issue.

February 06, 2011|By Nick Owchar | Los Angeles Times
  • Image to go with the review of the book "OK:The Improbable History of America's Greatest Word" by Allan Metcalf.
Image to go with the review of the book "OK:The Improbable History… (Paul Gonzales )

O.K.

The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word

Allan Metcalf

Oxford University Press: 211 pp., $18.95

Is there another word as supple as "OK"?

Those two letters, side by side, separated (or not) by periods — they answer so many questions and describe countless situations.

When your day is uneventful, "OK" is all you need to say about it. On the other hand, the word conveys a sharp criticism when it's all you can muster to tell your sister what you think of her new boyfriend. No invention — except maybe the elastic waistband — has the stretching power of "OK."

But is it really "America's greatest word"? That's what Allan Metcalf declares in the subtitle of his new book, "O.K.: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word." He goes even further, saying the word is our answer to Shakespeare (uh, I'm not OK with that).

"It is said to be the most frequently spoken (or typed) word on the planet, bigger even than an infant's first word 'ma,'" writes Metcalf, an English professor and executive secretary of the American Dialect Society. "Just two simple letters … of humble origin … born as a lame joke...."

Getting to that humble origin is tricky since there are so many rumors surrounding it. In the process of reviewing contending theories, Metcalf's book is a reminder of the crazy-quilt nature of English, a big, messy stew of collisions among languages and slang expressions. See if you can pick the real origin of "OK" (according to Metcalf) from the spurious ones:

—A Chicago bakery named O. Kendall and Sons stamped Army biscuits with the initials of the firm.

—A Boston baker named Otto Kimmel did the same thing with his vanilla cookies.

—The word originates in the Choctaw word "okéh," a verb meaning "it is true."

—The initials were used in an 1839 newspaper article.

As intriguing as the others are, "OK" first appeared in the Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839. It was an editor's joke, an abbreviation for a misspelled version of the phrase "all correct." It's a bit of a letdown, but Metcalf persuasively goes on to show how the word thrived thanks to a fad in abbreviations sweeping parts of the nation and, later, because of its effectiveness in telegraph messages.

It was also bandied about and celebrated by social groups and political parties (for instance, it became a rallying cry for supporters of President Martin Van Buren, known as "Old Kinderhook"). Its humble origin also was challenged by a grander story that it was created at the inkwell of another American leader, Andrew Jackson, a notoriously poor speller (he "had more spirit than spelling," Metcalf says). Old Hickory, the story goes, would show his approval of any document by initialing it with the letters "O.K.," which he thought stood for "Oll Korrect."

Metcalf traces "OK" in popular culture, business and literature and shows us how it evolved, behaving like a microscopic organism that splits itself into strange new shapes. Along with the working-class "OK," there is the genteel-looking "okay," the athletic "A-OK," the goofy-sounding "okie-dokie" and, of course, an even slimmer version used in text messaging: "K."

"OK" is ingrained in the American character, Metcalf says, a word that should inspire us to beat the odds since it "exemplifies imperfection successfully overcome, blatant misspelling not holding it back from becoming America's most successful invention."

Metcalf's book is an enjoyable addition to the shelfload of books prompting us to reconsider everyday things — from appliances to the moon overhead to the air we breathe. His book, in fact, isn't just enjoyable — that's right, it's better than OK.

nick.owchar@latimes.com

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