There is no humble, forelock-tugging, aw-shucks way to say this: We’ve got ourselves a miraculous language, we English speakers.
Just consider: every word that appears on the pages of this newspaper; every word we read and write and think and sing and shout and whisper — is made up of some combination of letters chosen from our alphabet.
Shakespeare, and Hemingway; Winston Churchill and George W. Bush; Leonard Cohen and Stompin’ Tom Connors — they each got just 26 letters to mix and match. The English language is so versatile and sturdy the letters themselves can stand alone. We have A lists and B girls, C clamps and D rings. Not to mention E-mail, the F word and G spots.
Even double letters can be eerily eloquent – “The MD went to the OR in his PJs on the QT to do a DC.” The SOB.
And then there are those two plodding workhorse letters — numbers 15 and 11 respectively, which, when yoked together are used by all of us, dozens of times a day. I’m referring to O and K. Okay?
What a curious pedigree that combination has. For years, no one knew for an absolute certainty why those two letters, ever came to be fused together. Some experts were confident that the word came from the famous Scots expression Och aye. Others theorized the origin was the Choctaw Indian dialect which contained the phrase okah, meaning ‘It is indeed’.
For a time it was believed the phrase derived from the French expression aux quais — which was supposedly scrawled on kegs of quality Puerto Rican rum.
Then the theorizers really got into the booze.
OK commemorated an Indian chieftain, Old Keokuk, some insisted. Nonsense! It really stood for Oberst Kommandant commemorating the German army officers who sided with the South during the American Revolution. Balderdash! The letters were the initials of Obadiah Kelly, a freight agent who signed bills of lading with a grandiose OK.
The speculation grew wilder and loopier. A few folks were sure the letters came from an ancient Macedonian fisherman famous for shouting “Olla Kalla! — meaning ‘all right’ in Greek. Others insisted the two letters were lifted from O. Kendall & Sons, a supplier of biscuits to the Union Army who stamped the initials on every wafer. The nastiest rumour attributed OK to Andrew Jackson. The ex-U.S. President was so illiterate, the rumour mongers said, that he scrawled “O.K.” on the bottom of government bills which meant he considered the contents to be ‘orl korrect’.
That was a bad joke and a cruel smear on Jackson’s name, for he was apparently a learned man — but it was ironically close to the truth. An even more learned scholar — a professor at Columbia University — discovered just a few years ago that OK does stem from a corruption of ‘All Correct’, but Andrew Jackson had nothing to do with it. Seems that back in the 1830s a mini-fad for goofy abbreviation swept the Boston area intelligentsia. It became de rigueur to refer to minor characters as SPs (small potatoes) and to speak of an absent party as GTT (Gone to Texas).
Deliberately miss-spelled abbreviations were considered to be thigh-slappers too. ‘All right’ was the way fuddy-duddies talked. Cool customers changed that to ‘oll wright’ or ‘OW’.
The letters O and K really got a working over. At various times they meant Orfully Konfused, Often Kontradicts and my favourite: Out of Kash, Out of Kredit and Out of Klothes.
Orl Korrect made the short list too — and unaccountably held its ground as ‘OK’ for the next 18 or 19 decades. OK is still going strong as quite possibly the most recognized phrase in the English language — it’s stronger than it’s ever been.
There an Okay Airways, an Okay Record Company and an Okay magazine. I’ve even got a pair of Jeans with OK stencilled on the bum.
Do I mind? Heck no.
It’s A-OK by me.
Arthur Black is a regular columnist for The News. He lives on Salt Spring Island.