Sunday, January 02, 2011

Allan Metcalf's OK: The improbable story of American's greatest word

Ah, reader mail. I got this back in November:

Hey Mr. Verb,

Long time fan, first time caller. Er I mean, mailer. Just a quick question about this recent NYT Book Review article I saw.

I’ve always wondered about the etymology of OK, but find the explanation given as a misspelled abbreviation for “Oll Korrect” to be less than satisfactory. It’s so pervasive that this seems like a strange place for it to have spawned from – editor speech and/or a joke in newspapers. Do you happen to know more about this? How valid is this theory??

Thanks for any light you can shed on it!

Now I'm finally reading Metcalf's book, the subject of that review. He follows a line of argument developed by the late great Allen Walker Read, who originally traced the history. Metcalf in fact lays out in great detail just how unlikely that etymology would seem to be, but just how strong the case for it is. It's a remarkable story, but probably the key is that there was a craze, or maybe kraze I should write, of odd abbreviations and joking misspellings in the Boston Morning Post. It caught on with other papers and went viral, to really chop the story down. The same editor, Charles Gordon Greene, apparently used lots of other playful things, like O.W. for 'all right', which did NOT catch on. Word history is a weird and shaky enterprise most of the time, but this is a pretty decent looking story, from what I can see.

Metcalf goes through a pile of other stories. I highly recommend the book -- which Oxford sent to a member of Team Verb for review, by the way -- as a nice read. This is exactly the kind of book, by the way, that people who call themselves 'language lovers' should read ... it's clear and accessible and gives non-specialists, I think, a good picture of how to think about language history and language use. And Metcalf writes in a really easy style. If you've ever seen him preside over the Word of the Year discussions, you'll hear his voice as you read.

1 comment:

Pascal-Denis Lussier said...

The most plausible story I came across for OK is the following:
The expression goes back to the 18th century. In French ports all over the world it had become standard practice to shout out "Au quai!" (pronounced 'o-k'. Lit. tr. "To dock!") to the seamen aboard the ships to let them know that it was safe for them to throw the next piece of cargo on the dock, they were ready to receive it. The expression became widely used, the English simply a phonetic spelling of the French expression.