The universal language that is the word Ok

When I told my son, Amar, I was planning my next article on ‘Ok’, he replied, ‘Oh? Ok!’ That’s how spontaneous a response this simple two lettered disyllabic word has become. Hard to believe it turned 175 only this year – oh yes, words celebrate birthdays too. One would have thought it had always been around. It’s the kind of word that has a magical simplicity to it, a comfortable all inclusiveness that makes it ageless. One may well imagine Eve responding with an ‘Ok’ when Adam exclaimed ‘Ouch!’ and informed her he was short of a rib on her account.

But even such a word, so universal in its usage and appeal, must have had a beginning. Americans were smugly confident it was theirs until World War II pulled the linguistic rug from under their feet. Their soldiers discovered it was used in other countries too – England, France, Germany and even Japan. Linguists have suggested that the Bedouins of Sahara were also familiar with it.

Allen Walker Read, the American etymologist stepped in to salvage his country’s pride. ‘Ok!’ he must have thought, ‘here I come, to render unto America that which is America’s’. Assiduous research on Ok gave him proof that it was first found in print in Boston’s Morning Post in 1839. In a satirical article about bad spelling, it was used as an abbreviation of ‘Oll Korrect’, a comical misspelling of ‘all correct.’

It was later adopted during the American presidential election campaign in 1840 to refer to Martin Van Buren who was seeking re-election. He was known by his nickname Old Kinderhook, Kinderhook being his birthplace, and it got shortened to OK. ‘Vote for OK!’ cried the Democrats. ‘What poor spelling!’ mocked the opposition, poking fun at the shoddy spelling of ‘Oll Korrect’. It didn’t turn out ok for OK who lost the 1841 election.

But the buzz around the elections gave currency to the word. Along came the telegraph, looking for short forms and gratefully embraced ok as the standard acknowledgement of receiving a transmission.

In 1967, the publication of Thomas A Harris’s ‘I’m OK , You’re OK’ , the mother of all self help books, further popularised the word. The sky was no longer the limit for ok.

It took off and swiftly spread its wings to even reach the moon for it was, technically speaking, the fourth word used when man landed there in 1969. ‘Contact Light’ said Aldrin. ‘Shutdown’, said Armstrong as if announcing the dawn of the computer age. Mind you, he didn’t say ‘shut up’. Aldrin meekly replied ‘Okay, Engine Stop.’ As space history was made, an excellent expression got greater legitimacy. What, anyway, is ‘ok’? Can it even be called a word? The spelling ‘okay’ is more recent. Used in the sense of ‘all right’, it remains the simplest response, positive without being specific, although the tone can speak volumes. There can be an enthusiastic ‘ok!’, a polite ‘ok’, a disapproving ‘ok?’, a deadpan ‘uhk’, a lukewarm ‘o...k’, a condescending ‘oh...k’. It can speak a whole language. It was my son’s stock response after every exam. If he did well, he would say a bright ‘ok’, if it was, well, ok, he would respond quietly, ‘ok’; if he had done badly, the answer would still be ok, but the tone would imply ‘now why don’t you just stop?’ I quickly picked up the nuances.

TV anchors, especially, overuse it to the point of tedium. I remember my professor describe with distaste a TV programme that included phone-in conversations with viewers. The presenter, a wide, plastic smile on her face, had okayed her way through the conversation.

‘You are a doctor? Ok.’ Broad smile. ‘A widower? Ok!’ Smile broader. ‘No children? Oakay!’ Even broader smile. ‘Both parents dead? Ok!’ Ear-splitting smile implying ‘Way to go!’ After counting seventeen Oks, he had muttered, ‘Not ok!’ and turned off the TV.

‘Ok’ is essential for computers, it being the universal shorthand for the command ‘Do It’. If you have sat through boring classes or lectures, counting the number of Oks used by the teachers would have provided a welcome diversion, honing your numerical skills in the bargain.

Before Ok was adopted wholeheartedly by Keralites in conversation, Gulf returnees were identified by the Oks that fell liberally from their lips.

Ok has become ‘k’ in sms lingo. What next? Will it disappear altogether? Not as long as there are computers and conversations. Okey-dokey!

The author is a city-based writer, academic and author of the Butterfingers series. (