Monday, August 06, 2007

OK is just okay

A few days ago Buffy tried to convince me that writing out 'okay' is preferable to using the capitalized letters OK. Not more correct. Not preferred by style guides. Just better. She even enlisted the support of her professor Chris Blake who dedicated a chapter in his most recent book to the issue.

In his short chapter "KO @ the Okay Corral" Blake offers the following argument:

We should change our current aberrant house style whereby we capitalize the word okay. Okay does not deserve to be uppercased. OK stands out and up, heralded on a page of print, yet it is the epitome of mediocrity. All lower-class words such as okay deserve lower-case status.

The chapter is full of enough corny jokes and cutesy orthographic games to deflect any serious contention. It's a satirical transcript of a meeting about publishing and style issues. He's having fun here so the occasional blasts of prescriptivism work best with a nudge-nudge tone. I'll look beyond his warning "--- it all, let's / these flaws before we cave in completely." By using "---" for "dash" and "/" for "slash" (I think that's what he intends) this line says DON'T TAKE ME SERIOUSLY. And Blake does like to advise that quite often. He's dedicated to self-deprecation. How else could he dare to suggest (as he does in the chapter) that relaxed orthography is "Barbarism!" crying out that "These are the last gasps of civilization."

Now--Consider how you knew that one of the lines in that last paragraph implies a loud voice. Not the exclamation mark. The all caps. As Blake himself suggests--capital letters get attention and demand power.

And that is the core of Buffy's preference for okay and her dislike for OK. OK looks too eager. It yells. It's not understated or humble as the word should be. OK is only okay. It's not great or fabulous or amazing so it deserves no all-caps spelling. She has always thought so.

But it's an initialism isn't it? And we overlook the 'all-caps=loud' convention in most other initialisms. I've noticed several other initialisms in blogposts and email messages lately that are almost always written with all caps. I've mentioned them before. Putting them in all caps is a good way of calling enough attention to them and perhaps even assuring the reader that there is no typo. "This is really what I intended. Now figure it out."

But some take more effort than others. And some take very little effort at all. When I was a child I would ask my mother if it was OK for me to turn on the TV. And FWIW IIRC she usually told me WRT the TV to leave it off. OTOH she sometimes said it would be fine. IOW OK.

AFAIK none of you readers had to scream out those initialisms. But OK is so common it doesn't need the signal to attention. We know what it means immediately. And we have okay as an alternative. We have emcee for MC and deejay for DJ. They're all fine.

When Buffy told me how brash and aggressive OK looks to her I suggested a new way of reading a few phrases.

  • House MD! is on tonight.

  • The UN! is in NY!

  • I was born near Washington DC!

  • Do you use a MAC! or a PC!? (I know I know. It's Mac and it's not an initialism.)

  • I graduated from the U! of M!


Etymology Epilogue
In the chapter Blake has one character explaining that some people trace OK back to oll korrect. The character named "Chris Blake" counters this etymology and claims that it's more likely an abbreviation of "Old Kinderhook" the birthplace of Martin Van Buren because the US(!) president liked to sign off his notes with O.K.

The OED gives more credence to the Oll Korrect origin, relying on the "detailed evidence provided by A. W. Read" in American Speech. In its list of citations an 1839 source provides the gloss "all correct" alongside an uncapitalised o.k.. Old Kinderhook is only listed under O.K. as it refers to Van Buren his campaign or his supporters.

The source for all correct (C.G. Greene--Boston Morning Post) is also listed in Webster's New World 3rd edition as the earliest known use. John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins agrees with the oll (or orl) korrect origin claiming reinforcement from the Van Buren campaign cry.

WNW also suggests the possibility of an alteration of Scottish och aye 'oh yes'. This is harder to connect because of no clear trail like the 1839-40 explosion in the US.

Funk&Wagnalls (1960) and Webster's New Twentieth Century (1979) both recognize "Old Kinderhook" as the likely origin. Because of the available evidence and the clearer semantic connection I'm siding with Ayto WNW and OED. In any case there's no reason to think it's more likely to have originated with Van Buren. It makes more sense that Van Buren supporters fell upon an initialism identical to theirs that was tied to a sense of approval so they appropriated that connotation for their own use of O.K.


  1. Fun post. That new-ways-of-reading-phrases sampler still splits my side.

    And funny footnote at the bottom of the page.

  2. Just face it, Mike, Buffy's right on this one, OKAY?!!

  3. I agree with the point that O.K. no longer stands as an initialism so it's not clear why we treat it like one with the caps.

    I agree that okay makes sense as a spelled-out form because the form has its own semantic charge.

    I don't agree that OK/O.K. is awful and demands to be yelled. This is the u.s. and we're all free to say what we want as forcefully as we want.

  4. With my home town being Choctaw, OK, I cannot help but say something.

    My own leaning toward efficiency has me saying two letters is much more desirable than four when the end result is exactly the same.

    And I of course disagree with OK being the epitome of mediocrity, it instead is closer to the vanguard of acceptability. When things are okay, we don't have to worry about them. When things are OK, we relax and begin to enjoy ourselves. (But when Oklahoma is OK, we want to hurt someone who created a lame motto.)

    In my judgment singular spellings are too prescriptive anyway. There is a time and place for each spelling of a word with such broad application. Better to say I'm okeh, you're OK, she's okay, we're all correct.

  5. But that's just the thing, Justin: I don't think "acceptability" has a vanguard.

    "Okay," for me, means I'm in a tolerable state, stable, satisfactory--at a C level on the grading scale. I'm managing. It might be acceptable, but it's hardly ideal. If I were enjoying myself, as you say, I'd advance, at least, to being "good."

    Excellent little pun in your closing line, though.

  6. (Your hushed "u.s." makes me teary, Michael. Hilarious.)

  7. Well I think what I'mt trying to say is in a more general sense, not in the sense of personal accomplishment though. The house is ok, my car is ok, the kids are ok, then I'm "free" to pursue something grand. There are no fires to put out.

    When people moved into villages and started farming, they had more ready supplies of food. Things were okay a lot more consistently, so people had more free time. Someone invented pottery in their free time, they stored food on it and put pictures on it which led to lots of different things. So in that case, "OK" led to great and wonderful things. Something that is OK is something you don't need to pay attention to at the moment, freeing you to other pursuits.

    Ambitious drive in a particular area of course demands more than okay, but overall in a general way it's a positive thing. I'm guessing that, because you write this, your computer is okay. That's great, because instead of fiddling around inside the cabinet and trying to replace a hard drive you are producing writing on the internet and doing a great job of it. Whereas, in my case, I try to have the thing running very fast and obsessively upgrade it. I don't accept OK from my desktop, but most people do and then go and do great things after that.

  8. Mike: It's true I've never thought of 'OK' as being particular loud or aggressive, but it just looks bad to me in a line of prose. In a comic book speech ballon it would be superior to 'okay', I guess.

    For me, abbreviating does draw attention to itself, and so I don't do it unless it would draw more attention if I didn't (such as writing Oxford English Dictionary for the OED, which is clunky and perhaps even pretentious).

  9. That's a good point Dave. It's probably not the capitalization that looks funny in most passages. 'OK' is still colloquial enough to feel out of place in some writing.

    Whether it's spelled OK or okay or ok there's something funny about Genesis beginning with G-d looking over his creation and proclaiming it "OK."

    "And on the seventh day G-d chilled."

    Justin: Imagine a conversation with someone whose opinions about movies you hold dear. You trust their judgment intensely. You ask them what they thought of that latest movie you've been wanting to see. They respond saying "It was OK." Is that a good review? More likely there was no horrible acting their were no egregiously corny writing and the editing was only good enough not to be noticed. But I'd say that OK is the equivalent of 2.5 stars out of 5.

    There may be no fires and perhaps "we relax" but we rarely "begin to enjoy ourselves."

    When things are OK we have the freedom to find distraction from such a profoundly mediocre state and we can find enjoyment by creating another context to host a task that is excellent -- superlative -- in its goals. A lallapaloosa.

    OK is only good enough to be ignored for being so mundane and displeasingly adequate.

  10. I think the issue here is a negativism towards the word. It is not squarely in the middle of things, it is on the side of positive if just barely so, where "bland" or "uninteresting" are on the side of negative though similarly slightly so. My suggestion involves the state of something being "facilitative" as opposed to "impeding".

    I wouldn't be offended if someone said a movie I loved was "OK", it indicates they accepted it as not negative. This is an indication of differing interest more than one of assault.

    At any rate, I've found Read's etymology questionable in its construction and especially in his approach to arguing it. Others have as well. It is curious that Read disregarded any Native origin of the word, and then ascribes its creation whole cloth to a group whose main unifying feature was mimicry of things they thought were "Indian". An interesting read on that.

  11. Well I wouldn't be offended if even someone said a movie I loved was abysmally horrible. But that's a different issue.

    Buffy's point--and the point I agree with--is that OK means mediocre. Only good enough to pass. It's on the positive side of things but it's not a grand statement of approval. It makes sense then--as the word is modest approval at best--and since it no longer functions as an initialism or indicates another full-form phrase--to move from the accentuating majuscules to the downplaying minuscules.

    I will give your contention of the etymology more attention in a full post.

  12. I'm with Buffy!!! I really dislike seeing "OK" or "O.K." written like that. I much prefer to see it written out "okay." This is probably just because I feel it looks better to spell things out when writing, but also just because I personally like it better :)

    Oh, but as I was typing this comment my Mozilla Firefox spell checker decided that "okay" isn't spelled correctly but "OK" was! How ironic!


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