Everywhere in the world I’ve ever been, I hear people using OK. I first realized it when I was traveling, using my limited language skills in some language or another and I’d try my hand at haggling and be answered with “OK.” I’ve asked taxi drivers where they’re from and whether they say OK there and so far it has been unanimously yes. OK is just a nonsense word, though. It doesn’t actually mean anything, does it? Where did it come from?
Turns out, no one really knows. There are several theories, a few of which you can read, if you’re interested, on Wikipedia. My favorite is the “Boston abbreviation fad” because what a dumb fad to have such a lasting impression on the world’s languages. And if this theory is correct, we should be celebrating 175 years of saying OK, although it’s more likely that OK has its roots in African languages, which makes it even older.
The thing is, I can’t imagine what language, especially English, would sound like with out OK. It’s a bit of nonsense that caught on because we needed it, perhaps. What did people say before those wacky Bostonians got in there? No one was really saying “all correct” were they?
Hey Stan, how about Netflix and chill tonight?
Hmm, maybe. OK, or ok, or okay even, means so many things. But how did it permeate our language so fully? And why did it? And why, like bee’s knees or groovy did it not fade from favor after a decade or two?
There are so many meanings for these humble letters. OK means yes.
Will you go to prom with me?
OK means mediocre.
How was the new Gloria Swanson movie?
It was ok. Not her best.
It means fine or alright.
How are you feeling?
Is Chinese ok?
Recently, it has started to mean “Whatever you say.”
I’m going to Paris to bungee jump off the Eiffel tower for spring break.
There are a million variations on these two letters, many of which are used by teenagers and other flighty language types.
Okely dokely, as per Ned Flanders
And my personal favorite, mmk.
Has any other word sprung to life so successfully? The next time you write or say OK, take into consideration its very strange position in the world’s languages. And I’ll be here collecting research notes for a rich, full volume on this topic that absolutely no one will want to read.