"OK" could be America’s greatest gift to the world

I just stumbled upon a book review entitled “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word” by linguist Allan Metcalf, that explores what is arguably America’s greatest gift to the world, the universally understood symbol and gesture of acceptance: “OK“!

It is the most commonly used word in the English language, and the most widely recognized—in its various forms—in the world. The word “OK” has been adapted by various languages that include: Dutch, German, Swedish, Polish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Welsh, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Bahasa Indonesia and Tagalog (Filipino), to name a few.

From left: Courtesy of Everett Collection; Neal Preston / Corbis; Pascal Parrot / Sygma-Corbis From left, Rodney Dangerfield, Mary Lou Retton, and Yasir Arafat give the “OK” sign.

Whether you agree or not, this author examines the history of these two letters that make up a universal symbol whose widespread adoption is also explained by the ease of pronunciation by virtually any language speaker, making it well… universally appealing.

What the history of the word OK can tell us about American concision, psychology, and language. Metcalf provides many snapshots of American history, with detours into the worlds of business and celebrity and psychology, while painting a vivid portrait of the weird, wild process of word evolution.

And some excerpts of facts that make this book an interesting read, as reviewed by Denver Nicks

The Origin: OLL KORRECT: “…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 corks to fly, like sparks, upward.”
Thus was OK inconspicuously born into the world, on March 23, 1839, in the pages of a cantankerous Boston newspaper…. From the pages of the Morning Post, “o.k.” was repeated by other newspapers, went a 19th-century version of viral to become a political slogan and soon enter the English lexicon.

OKEY DOKEY: By the early 20th century, OK had lost all vestige of its humble origin as a newspaperman’s joke. Speakers, writers, listeners and readers all handled OK like any other word—indeed, it was increasingly spelled out “okay,” departing entirely from its abbreviated beginning—and its definition had become, simply and soberly, “all right.” But the festive mood of the Roaring Twenties demanded a comical usage, and thus was “okey dokey” born. The phrase has evolved on its own, now in its newest iteration used by Homer’s neighbor in The Simpsons, Ned Flanders. Okely Dokely!

ORIGIN: THE “OK” HAND SIGN: … where the index finger and the thumb form a circle, with the other three digits extended, was born in radio sometime around 1946. With a radio broadcaster behind soundproof glass, the director would give the OK hand sign to signal that all levels were OK and the show was ready to go.

THE FIRST “OK” UTTERED ON THE MOON: As the Apollo 11 lunar module approached the surface of the moon, Buzz Aldrin said to Neil Armstrong, “Contact light,” indicating that they were about to land. Armstrong responded, “shutdown,” as he killed the engines. The module settled into the moon dust, the first manmade object to make contact with the surface of the moon, and Aldrin anticlimactically said, “OK. Engine stop,” making “OK” the first word ever spoken on the moon.

NO “dolt” ON MY KEYBOARD, PLEASE: In the early 1980s, as Apple was developing the first mouse-based point-and-click system, developers ran into a puzzling question. The “Cancel” button wasn’t a problem, but when users want to affirm something, what do they point at and what should it say? The first solution was a box that said, “Do It,” but focus groups were confused. “Why is the computer calling me a dolt?” asked one user. In the end developers settled on the old all correct, or oll korrect, and made the affirmative button say, simply, “OK”.

Inspiration: The Net Economy, Newsweek, The Daily Beast

About dianhasan

Brand Storyteller, Travel Writer, Speaker, Creative Writer & Thinker - avid observer of randomness in everyday life - Sustainable Business, Eco Matters, Sustainable Urban Issues, Architecture, Heritage Conservation, Innovation & Brand-Strategy, Cross-Cultural Communications, Travel, Tourism & Lifestyle.
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2 Responses to "OK" could be America’s greatest gift to the world

  1. Barry Kayton says:


    Great article. But there’s a typo in your headline:

    “OK” is could be America’s greatest gift to the world

    Should be:

    “OK” could be America’s greatest gift to the world


    • dianhasan says:

      Good heavens, my apology for the typo. Appreciate your pointing it out. Glad you found us. Let’s stay connected. Best regards, dian

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