Thursday, March 21, 2013

Forget Bracketology — March 23rd Will Be An OK Day! It's A Lock!

This blog guarantees that Saturday, March 23, 2013 will be an OK-Day. The Sage of Jacksonville (IL), Professor Allan Metcalf, shares his knowledge of the etymology of "OK." For years, this blogger wallowed in ignorance and repeated (ad nauseum) the erroneous origin of "OK" during the election of 1840, when losing candidate — President Martin Van Buren (known as "Old Kinderhook," for his hometown) was supported by "OK Clubs." Of course, OK wasn't enough, because the Whig, William Henry Harrison, won the election, but died after only a month in office. Obviously, Harrison wasn't OK. However, months before the election of 1840, the shorthand way of expressing approval, assent, or acknowledgment was "OK." This neologism appeared in print in the Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839. So, this blogger stands (belatedly) corrected, chastened by the thought of thousands of poor students who heard that "OK" was born in the election of 1840. If this is (fair & balanced) ignominy, so be it.

[x CHE/Lingua Franca Blog]
Happy Birthday, OK!
By Allan Metcalf

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Hard to believe, but with the coming of spring, it’s OK Day again, the birthday of OK.

It was a mere 174 years ago that OK was born, on March 23. It made its newborn appearance that Saturday morning on Page 2 of the four-page Boston Morning Post, in a turgid paragraph of would-be humor. The sentence that first gave ink to OK reads as follows:

The “Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells,” is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have the “contribution box,” et ceteras, o. k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.

To fully explain the in-group jokes in that passage requires more room than I can spare here. It has to do with the “Anti-Bell-Ringing Society” or ABRS, a group that despite its name was actually in favor of bell ringing. It was formed the previous year to protest a city ordinance outlawing the ringing of dinner bells, and its seriousness can be judged by the names of its officers, like “Professor of Bell-ocution.”

It seems that members of the ABRS had taken a steamer from the Literary Emporium (Boston) to the Commercial Emporium (New York City) and may or may not have stopped in Providence, RI, occasioning comment from The Providence Journal to which the editor of the Boston Morning Post, Charles Gordon Greene, objected in the sentence quoted above.

Huh? Well, don’t worry about the details. If you want the full story, get my book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word (2010). (In case you’d prefer to read it in Chinese, it’s now available in a translation published by The China Times.) The important point is, here we have the very first instance of “OK.”

That year and the next, OK went viral in newspapers and politics, and all of its virality traces back to that Saturday morning in Boston. Among other things, in 1840 President Martin Van Buren got the nickname “Old Kinderhook” (because his home town was Kinderhook, N.Y.), and OK Clubs were formed to support his reelection. (He lost to William Henry Harrison, who had the best slogan: “Log Cabin and Hard Cider.”)

I can’t claim to be the one who discovered all this. It was Allen Walker Read, scholar of historical American English, who read newspapers of the 1830s painstakingly in the days before the Internet, and who published his detailed findings in the 1960s. And I don’t have room here to debunk all the logical but mistaken origins proposed by well-meaning others; you’ll have to see Chapters 4 and 6 of my book for that.

Suffice it here to say, in tribute: OK is not only America’s greatest word, but the world’s greatest. In two letters it expresses the American philosophy of making do, it teaches tolerance, and it confirms countless negotiations in our everyday speech. So please pause for a moment on Saturday to celebrate OK Day.

And any way you celebrate it, that’s OK. Ω

[Allan Metcalf is Professor of English and College Registrar at MacMurray College (IL). Metcalf is the  executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, and author of OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word (2011). Metcalf received a B.A. with high honors in English from Cornell University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.]

Copyright © 2013 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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