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“OK,” says the teacher. “You’re doing OK. Your coursework is OK. Give it to me and I’ll give it my OK; I need to OK it before you submit it. OK?” A versatile word, “OK”: equally at home as interjection, adverb, adjective, noun, verb and interrogative. But where did it come from? It is said to have come from a Choctaw

Indian word, oke, meaning “it is”. It is said to represent the French au quai (“to the dock”), used in Louisiana when a bale of cotton was of sufficient quality for export. It could be the Scots och aye, meaning “oh yes”. Or it might have come from the Wolof language of Africa, imported by slaves into America, in which waw kaymeans “yes indeed”. Then there is the idea that it represents a mark stamped on biscuits made by a Boston baker, Otto Kimmel, in the early years of the nineteenth century. All these speculations, and many more, are listed in an entertaining little book called OK: the improbable story of America’s greatest word (Oxford, £12.99). But its author, Allan Metcalf, dismisses them (as does the Oxford English Dictionary) and supports the findings of Professor Allen Read, writing in American Speechin the 1960s, who asserted that the word was invented in the Boston Morning Post of Saturday, 23 March 1839. The context is baf- fling, concerning an obscure dispute between two newspapers, but the abbreviation is there, with its own explanation: “o.k. – all correct”. The expression is said to have been coined by the newspaper’s founder, Charles Greene, as a joke. He was responding to a craze not only for abbreviations but for comic abbre- viations based on mangled spelling. Previously he’d tried “OW” for “all right” (itself a new expression in the 1830s), but it hadn’t caught on. “OK” did better. It was picked up by other East Coast newspapers. Then it had a stroke of luck. Campaigners for the re-election of

President Martin Van Buren, then 57, took to calling him “Old Kinderhook” after his home town. Abbreviated to OK, it created a slogan that both identified and praised the candidate. Then another newspaper editor-cum-humorist, James Bennett, wrote a satirical squib in which he said that OK had been used by the previ- ous president, Andrew Jackson, to endorse official papers. Bennett said that Jackson, who was popularly (but unfairly) believed to be illit- erate, used it to stand for “Oll Kurrek”, his own version of “All Correct”.

Ludicrous (and libellous) as this was, it gained wide currency. People began to use the abbreviation, often jokingly, but it was also picked up in the 1850s by the Morse-code oper- ators of the early telegraph, who found it an economical way of acknowledging a commu- nication. Telegraphy aside, it remained informal, slangy and humorous throughout the nineteenth century, appearing in low-life stories but not respectable literature. By the twentieth century, however, its satirical ori- gins were largely forgotten, and it became a usefully neutral term to express assent or approval (mild approval, nowadays). It arrived in Britain in the 1870s, popularised in a music-hall song (“The OK thing on Sunday is the walking in the Zoo”, ran the chorus), but was treated with faint disapproval for many years. OK (or okay) is now ubiquitous in speech but rarer in writing. For instance, it is used in only one of the colloquial Bibles that are available. “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common,” says God in Acts 10:15 in the King James Version, in a passage in which he appears to give Peter permission to eat crea- tures considered “common or unclean”. The Message, created by American pastor Eugene Peterson, puts it like this: “If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.” OK has come a long way.

Glimpses of Eden

GOOD NEWS: the tide has turned. It may not feel like it, but the world around these parts in North Yorkshire is full of

signs that winter is now on its ebb flow. Today the woods rang with the drumming of the greater spotted woodpecker, that tender but resonant percussion, one of the classic indi- cations of the slow end of a European winter. Others are also finding voice. Nature’s great silence, observed by most birds since midsum- mer, is being daily eroded. Our starling community, numbers boosted locally by the high-quality nesting apartments provided by our disused filling station, have begun to per- form from every available podium: chimney

pots, telephone wires, and television aerials. As they serenade their potential mates from these highly visible stages, the sun catches the starlings’ new breeding plumage, greeny whirls flashing on each breast like their own private, avian aurora borealis. Great tits, too, are pealing as they inspect nest boxes. This will go on for many weeks; they are highly assid- uous house hunters. Winter is still in the ascendancy for now, but mere subsistence is no longer the be-all and end-all. In the spare hour that a sunny day allows them, the birds are turning their thoughts to music and the new life it presages. There will be more cold days, some of them may be bitter, but the reach of winter is slipping.

Jonathan Tulloch 36 | THE TABLET | 29 January 2011

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