METCALF’S book traces the origin and development of the word OK from its humble beginnings to its hugely popular and well established presence in virtually all the major languages of the world: German, Dutch, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Korean, Japanese, Hebrew, and several others. The reasons for its spread are quite interesting: it has a striking look, and O and K are basic sounds in most languages.
OK was born on March 23, 1839 in Boston on the page of Boston Morning Post, almost like a joke, but rose steadily to become a business tool, a staple of everyday conversation, and an embodiment of a typically American attitude towards life. It is believed that it could have disappeared soon after its birth, but was saved because it figured in a big way in the ensuing presidential election of America, and was also used in telegraph.
By 1871, OK had established itself as a mark of approval and was widely used in all kinds of documents. Its use in telegraph and cables confirmed its usefulness; it also found its way into ballots and products. Its popularity increased because of the growth of OK Clubs in America.
The writing fraternity of America took to it quite late. Even when it had established itself in the domain of public discourse, writers avoided it. It is said that Thoreau and Louisa Alcott used it once in their writings, but dropped it in the final revision. Once it was accepted by the writers of the West, and people like Ring Lardner and Sinclair Lewis, it found its way into the writings of others, including those of Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and Toni Morrison.
The most interesting aspect of OK is that it can be used as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and interjection. Its spellings also vary: ok, OK, O.K, okay, okeh or okey. As a positive word it affirms, but does not evaluate. Because of this, it has no comparative or superlative forms. It symbolises a kind of philosophy that goes with the American spirit, “of pragmatism, efficiency and getting things done.” Since it is not used on formal occasions, it also embodies a democratic spirit, of tolerance and acceptance.
Allan Metcalf has written a well researched book that is reader-friendly and truly fascinating. It deserves to be read by one and all.
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