B1 Intermediate US 388 Folder Collection
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Good morning John. OK.
That's a weird word.
By which I mean, "OK."
"OK" means like fine, good, satisfactory, approved.
None of those words even have K's in them!
There aren't any words that are just capital letters.
This isn't normal!
And yet, "OK" is possibly the most spoken word on the planet.
Not because we say it a lot in the US, which we do,
but also because we say it a lot everywhere.
So many other languages have been like,
"Yeah, actually, that one's good. We'll take that."
So from Mandarin to Hebrew to Flemish to Russian to Indian to Portuguese,
"OK" is "OK"!
It's a common, affirmative word.
What does "OK" even mean?
It's like you want to approve of something, but not a lot.
The way we have a word for "good" without all the GOOD tied up in it.
Like if I fall down, you say, "Are you OK?"
All you're really asking is, "Is there something wrong?"
It's like an acceptance without any values or perspective or opinions laid on top of it.
And I want that! I can just be OK, and that's OK!
But where did it actually come from, though?
Allow me to introduce you to the only Wikipedia page that is a list of potential etymologies for a word.
And it's very long!
Maybe it comes from "och aye". Like, Scottish. Oh yes.
Or from the Greek phrase, "ola kala," meaning "all good." Maybe!
But etymologists and historians have settled on three prime theories.
We'll get to the most settled-upon one last, but let's start with a West African origin.
Thus brought to the US by slaves.
A 1784 verified use of the word "K," rather than "OK,"
is a transcription of something a slave said in North Carolina.
And this may come from a common West African phrase "o ke," or "waw-kay," depending on the language,
that's basically an affirmative or a backchannel.
A backchannel is what linguists call that thing that you do where you make a noise or you say a phrase or a word
just to let somebody know that you understood what they said.
And among the many uses for the word "OK" remains backchanneling.
Like you're on the phone and you're like, "OK, uh-huh, yup, mhm, OK," - Like that!
Second, the Choctaw word "okeh", which maybe was also somewhat similar and other Native American languages,
and from what I can tell this is not particularly easy to translate,
but probably it means something to the effect of "it is so,"
and is also apparently sometimes used as a backchannel, weirdly enough.
The definite thing that we do know is when it entered into the popular lexicon of average Americans as the letter O and the letter K:
In the late 1830s, there was this weird fad for comically misspelling things in newspapers --
I don't know...
-- and then you would take those common misspellings and create acronyms from them.
Like another example of a similar word was "OW", which was for "oll wright".
Later, they had "oll korrect" - "OK."
Now this, like all of the other weird comical misspelling acronyms, would have been completely forgotten
if not for Martin Van Buren.
The democratic party decided to take this weird "OK" meme and apply it to Martin Van Buren,
whose name sounded too Dutch, I guess?
But he was from Kinderhook, New York and they called him "Ole Kinderhook",
but that probably also wouldn't have stuck around if people hadn't been looking for ways to save characters on telegrams because you payed by the letter.
And then "OK" continued to trundle down the decades until we got to where we are now.
For me, the amazing thing about this word is how normal and everyday it is,
despite the fact that it is very weird and unusual and we never noticed that.
And it sort of exists in the background as part of the fabric of culture,
not as something that we immediately identify as something that we're confused and amazed by.
But it is confusing and amazing,
and I guess that's OK.
John, I'll see you on Tuesday.
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The Most Popular Word in the World

388 Folder Collection
Samuel published on March 27, 2018    Arnold Hsu translated    Evangeline reviewed
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