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Happy Birthday, OK!

Chinese vertical (2)Hard to believe, but with the coming of spring, it’s OK Day again, the birthday of OK.

It was a mere 174 years ago that OK was born, on March 23. It made its newborn appearance that Saturday morning on Page 2 of the four-page Boston Morning Post, in a turgid paragraph of would-be humor. The sentence that first gave ink to OK reads as follows:

The “Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells,” is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have the “contribution box,” et ceteras, o. k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.

To fully explain the in-group jokes in that passage requires more room than I can spare here. It has to do with the “Anti-Bell-Ringing Society” or ABRS, a group that despite its name was actually in favor of bell ringing. It was formed the previous year to protest a city ordinance outlawing the ringing of dinner bells, and its seriousness can be judged by the names of its officers, like “Professor of Bell-ocution.”

It seems that members of the ABRS had taken a steamer from the Literary Emporium (Boston) to the Commercial Emporium (New York City) and may or may not have stopped in Providence, R.I., occasioning comment from The Providence Journal to which the editor of the Boston Morning Post, Charles Gordon Greene, objected in the sentence quoted above.

Huh? Well, don’t worry about the details. If you want the full story, get my book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. (In case you’d prefer to read it in Chinese, it’s now available in a translation published by The China Times.) The important point is, here we have the very first instance of “OK.”

That year and the next, OK went viral in newspapers and politics, and all of its virality traces back to that Saturday morning in Boston. Among other things, in 1840 President Martin Van Buren got the nickname “Old Kinderhook” (because his home town was Kinderhook, N.Y.), and OK Clubs were formed to support his reelection. (He lost to William Henry Harrison, who had the best slogan: “Log Cabin and Hard Cider.”)

I can’t claim to be the one who discovered all this. It was Allen Walker Read, scholar of historical American English, who read newspapers of the 1830s painstakingly in the days before the Internet, and who published his detailed findings in the 1960s. And I don’t have room here to debunk all the logical but mistaken origins proposed by well-meaning others; you’ll have to see Chapters 4 and 6 of my book for that.

Suffice it here to say, in tribute: OK is not only America’s greatest word, but the world’s greatest. In two letters it expresses the American philosophy of making do, it teaches tolerance, and it confirms countless negotiations in our everyday speech. So please pause for a moment on Saturday to celebrate OK Day.

And any way you celebrate it, that’s OK.

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