INTRO: This week VOA Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble answer a question about one of the most widely used expressions in the world.
AA: Listener Shahram Mohammadi in Tehran writes: "I want to know what O.K. stands for. Is it a Latin word? Where does it come from?"
RS: For some answers, we asked Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College in Illinois, and executive secretary of the American Dialect Society.
AA: Allan Metcalf says O.K. started out as a joke, what he called an "egregious misspelling" of the expression "all correct."
TAPE: CUT ONE - METCALF
"Now of course `all' is spelled with an A and `correct' is spelled with a C, but O.K. in the humor of 1839 - it must have been a slow summer in Boston, because in 1839, the Boston newspapers were full of humorous, or what they thought were humorous, abbreviations. They had OFM, Our First Men; SP, Small Potatoes; RTBS, Remains To Be Seen. And then among other things they put in O.K. They used O.K. now and then, `oll korrect,' and they thought that was really hilarious."
RS: Most of those expressions used by Boston newspaper columnists faded away. But not OK.
AA: The following year, 1840, President Martin Van Buren was running for re-election. Because he was born in Kinderhook, in New York State, Van Buren was known as "Old Kinderhook" - O.K.
TAPE: CUT TWO - METCALF
"His supporters formed an O.K. Club in New York City, and so there was a reinforcement for O.K., one meaning `oll korrect,' and the other meaning, `Old Kinderhook,' and that became a nationally prominent term. He lost the election -- but O.K. won."
RS: And that, Allan Metcalf says, is the "true original story of O.K.," based on the research published in the 1960s by Allen Walker Reed of Columbia University, regarded as the expert on O.K.
AA: So, in other words, forget all those competing claims you might hear about the roots of O.K.
TAPE: CUT THREE - METCALF
"Because it's such a successful expression, practically every ethnic and other group in the country has claimed it as their origin.
So the Scots think it's an `och aye,' and President Woodrow Wilson thought it was a Choctaw [Indian]`okeh.'"
AA: In fact, Allan Metcalf at the American Dialect Society says almost every continent has tried to lay claim to O.K.
TAPE: CUT FOUR - METCALF
"It's by far the most successful American linguistic export. There's something about it, maybe it's got the right sounds that every language has, it's short and to the point, and I think it conveys the American spirit."
RS: As he sees it, O.K. conveys the attitude "that'll do" or "that'll work."
TAPE: CUT FIVE - METCALF
"One of the interesting things about O.K., though, is that it still, although everyone knows it, it isn't something that you generally would use in formal speaking or formal writing. I teach freshman composition, among other things, and I can't even recall a student attempting to use O.K. in writing.
That just doesn't seem to be the thing that you do. The written form where you see it will be where it's representations of speech, in a novel or something else, you'll see somebody saying `O.K. this' or `O.K. that.'"
AA: Allan Metcalf says the most ubiquitous use of O.K. these days is on computer screens. Lots of computer prompts require the user to click on "O.K." to make something happen.
RS: Which raises the question: Just how should O.K. be written? The answer is: However you'd like.
TAPE: CUT SIX - METCALF
"Whether it is two capital letters without periods, two capital letters with periods, o- k-a-y, or small letters with periods -- and then even the question is it a noun, verb, interjection, is it a complete sentence, or is it part of another sentence - it goes beyond the boundaries of any single grammatical category to encompass a huge range of speaking."
AA: That's pretty amazing for a word that Allan Metcalf says all but disappeared from common use during the latter half of the 1800s.
TAPE: CUT SEVEN - METCALF
"Starting around the year 1900 everyone starts using it, but after 1840 it just appears rarely and in isolated places, and you would think, for example, Mark Twain, that master of dialect, would have used O.K. There's not a single O.K. in all of his writing."
RS: We can't talk about O.K. without mentioning one of the most famous events of the Old West: the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. We were curious how that horse corral in Tombstone, Arizona, got its name.
AA: We found out that the original owner, John Montgomery, liked the sound of the O.K. -- or "Old Kinderhook" -- Club for Martin Van Buren in New York City, so he took the name. And, one of the employees of the O.K. Corral told us that if we'd like any more information, we'd have to call back after the gunfight...
RS: That's right, the gunfight. Today the O.K. Corral it a big tourist draw, with its daily re-enactments of the famous shootout - only today the shooters all come out O.K. in the end.
AA: That's all for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.
MUSIC: "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral"