It's O.K., Okay?
Welcome to “Off the Clock,” the Saturday edition of Timeless & Timely that’s a fun look at language and words.
As always, I try to put a historic or literary spin on it because—well, you understand. I’m a nerd. And I hope this resonates with other like-minded souls out there.
We celebrated an anniversary this week.
On March 23, 1839, the initials “o.k.” were first published in The Boston Morning Post.
Have you ever wondered just what it is we’re saying when we say “okay”?
I mean, you know it’s a neutral affirmative response, conveying acceptance or agreement with what was said, but do you know how we came to use the word?
We can trace the origins back to the 1830s, as part of a fad of intentionally misspelling words or abbreviations. Young intellectuals in Boston entertained their peers with coded messages of butchered terms.
Some examples of these are KC for “knuff said,” KY for “know yuse,” and OW for “oll wright.”
Not too different from my teenagers who use ik for “I know” or rn for “right now.” Although those are abbreviations for properly spelled words, even if they’re all lowercase.
All Is Well
In the early 1800s, “all correct” was a common phrase meaning everything is in order. And “o.k.” was associated with it on Saturday, March 23, 1839 in The Boston Morning Post. In that case, it was meant as an abbreviation for “oll korrect” the popular slang misspelling of “all correct.”
Other newspapers began to spread the word, and it became mainstream. Most of those, however capitalized it as “O.K.”
Around the same time, Martin Van Buren was campaigning for a second term as President. Since he was from Kinderhook, New York, his supporters called him “Old Kinderhook” and said “Martin Van Buren is O.K.,” implying that he was the right choice.
Van Buren lost but the term lived on, largely thanks to the rise of the telegraph just four years later. A quick and easy way to send an acknowledgment in the affirmative.
But is it O.K., OK, o.k., or okay?
According to Lithub, it’s a matter of using a certain guideline known as the Ugly Rule:
“One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from an old alt-weekly copyeditor at a bar, who didn’t really prescribe to this fixed style or that, but rather believed first and foremost in the “ugly rule.” He held (correctly) that language and its rules are slippery and ever-changing, and that convention and usage should always supersede institutional formality. So, within that admittedly wild and wooly ethos he came up with the Ugly Rule, which privileges the reader’s eye above all else, and seeks to minimize typographical distractions.”
Sounds OK. And familiar.
Earlier this week, a new media company received its new name. When Justin Smith mentioned that his new venture with Ben Smith (no relation) would have a name that’s the same in many languages, speculation mounted.
The name they chose is semafor. The word “semaphore” is derived from the ancient Greek word comprised of “sêma,” or signal, and “phore,” which means carrier or bearer of a signal.
I wondered what other possibilities there might be — what other words are the same (or nearly the same) in many languages?
Soup, taxi, pajama, banana, coffee, tea…
These are what we would call cognates: words in two or more languages with similar spellings and pronunciations. They also have similar meanings.
But is there a universal word that a speaker of any language could understand? Aside from Coca-Cola, that is.
According to scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, there is only one word like that. The only word in existence that’s the same in every language is huh.
There are, of course, words in different languages that may sound or be spelled the same, but have different meanings.
Actual in Spanish means current.
In Dutch, aloud is ancient.
When you say fart in Polish, you’re wishing someone good luck.
If you find glass in your dish in Sweden, you’re eating ice cream.
When you tell someone they’re slim in Dutch, you’re calling them smart.
And I think we’ll just leave things there, okay?
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
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