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Sincerely OK

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‘okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?’
                      —Bob Dylan, It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

Merriam Webster recently posted an interesting video clip on the “bizarre origins of the world’s most recognized word”: okay. OK. Like, isn’t that what Rose would say that is?

My 1980 printing of The Compact Edition of the OED doesn’t list “okay” in its main body, but does get around to including the word as one of the alternatives for “O.K.” listed in its Supplement. OED judges the “all correct” theory to be the okay etymology, taking the effort to discount several of the main alternative theories. But then given how widely recognized the word is and how broad its usage has extended to so many different meanings, OED seems remarkably restrained against putting forward much effort to adequately define the word. At least, as of the relatively modern year of 1980, they were; perhaps they’re more okay with defining common words by now.

The Word Usage chapter of my 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, published in 2003, ignores the word outright. Does that mean it’s okay to use it however one will?

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd ed., 1996) seems to agree with Merriam Webster’s conclusion that “OK” is the world’s most recognized word, calling it “Possibly the only English word universally recognized by foreigners throughout the world.” Although Fowler seems to agree the word’s origin as having been “established” as an abbreviation of “orl (or oll) korrect,” Fowler does still give due respect to the Choctaw (“oke”) and French (“au quai”) camps, together with one other theory pointing to the West African language Wolof. Almost as if reflecting the 1980 OED’s shrug at the word, Fowler concludes that, “OK has very wide currency in the spoken language but is rarely found in formal written work.”

Seriously? We think (although I’ve not seen reports of any actual government-funded research into so important an issue as of the foreign acceptance of so crucial an issue as the understanding of our communication) that OK is the most widely recognized word in the English language, yet we can scarcely define it and we rarely use it in written speech, only informally so?

OKI take it that Fowler is probably not considering legal documents to be “formal written work,” since even in 1996 it was not at all unusual to find “OK” in some box that required a check mark before signature under penalty of the law; and I seriously doubt that any of the people filling out such documents – whether domestic or foreign – needed to first check out their OED to understand what was being attested to. Heck, even the IRS has forms online where the user has to press a button that says “okay” to proceed — does it not count as a “formal written work” if the IRS did the writing? And hmmmm, let’s try a Bing search on OK (41.7 million hits) and on okay (15.6 million hits) and on okey (1.74 million hits), probably all of those vastly underestimating actual written usage of the word, since Bing’s not necessarily the most okay authority on the question. Okay, but doesn’t occupying the central spot on this complex modern device we know and love as the remote control count as “formal written work”?

So then, how about hoity toity poetry? As in, the same kind of critics who can shun Rod McKuen for knowing how to bring poetry to the level of communicating song to an ordinary person. Or as in, the same kind of self-righteous judges who insult a poetry reader for reacting with a simple “wow” while somehow being okay with expressing their own feelings in as common a tongue. That kind of poetry, I mean: is it okay to have “OK” in a “formal written work” of poetry? Apparently, enough so for me to give consideration to opening up a new collection, along with my collections of aubades and other poetic curiosities. I’ll circle back around here to give the link once I’ve done so.

All in all, what will never be okay is to will that another not be okay. Although unfortunately, that is almost as commonplace and universally accepted as the word itself. That despite every core spiritual principle of every people judging it not okay at all.

//] - so to speak


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Written by macheide

3 February 2015 at 4:34 pm

Posted in so to speak

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One Response

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  1. “She’s broke, and it’s oke.” — Okes, our Singers have requested that I sing Frank’s version of The Lady Is a Tramp for our spring fling. Which introduces me to “oke.” Which I had to hear Frank singing several dozen times before it occurred to me to look the word up in the dictionary. I mean, sure, I could figure out easily enough from context what it meant, but I was still interested in what the dictionary would say.

    Among the various sources, I found my Oxford English Dictionary to be the most disappointing — it simply said to see “OK.” Okes, but usually the OED has been a lot better at digging up the first known occurrence of a word in written word. So, was that in the Tramp song, or did the song lean on some already-established slang?

    Okes, we can’t always depend on what we find on the internet, but in the absence of anything better, I’ll buy the version that traces it to street slang from northern Chicago neighborhoods. See my tweet.


    17 February 2015 at 8:32 am


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