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The word "OK" - a linguistic virus from the eighth president of the USA
by Karl-Erik Tallmo

  Which word is it we say most often? Frequency dictionaries usually indicate that all sorts of particles, prepositions, pronouns, and various conjunctions are most commonly used in language: the, of, and, a, in, to, it, is, was, to, I, for - these are the twelve most common words in normal language.1

In spoken language one might expect interjections and invectives to be more common than in writing. The same applies to what is called schwa - not proper words really, but rather sounds like "ah" or "eh" that we use to pad the pauses in our diction with. But of course, we also use real words as linguistic cement: "Sort of", "like", "you know", or "f'yah-no-whaddameen". In dialogs we also use cue markers, short words or grunts that we emit in order to tell the other party of the conversation that we "follow", that we understand the line of reasoning, so that he or she may continue. "Right", "exactly", "yeah", "uhu".

But, speaking of words that are uttered frequently, one must also define what it means to "say" or "utter" something. What constitutes an utterance? Must there be a receiver? Does it count to shout out loud, alone in front of the TV set, when the home team scores a goal? When you curse the collapsing coffee machine? When you say "heel" to the dog? And what about silent invocation or prayer in the full moon night?

Sometimes our answers are rather laconic - both in reality and on the computer.

  Now, as I sit here writing at my computer, I think, of course, of the abbreviation "OK", that I so often bounce back at it, when the program has gone astray and requests my intervention. If this small expression, when clicked, constitutes an utterance, then it ought to be one of the most common words in my vocabulary. The word "Cancel" is about as common in computer dialog boxes, but it doesn't get clicked as often as "OK". It is quite reassuring to know that I am a rather affirmative character after all.

When the computer wants us to tell what we want it to do next - this is commonly - but somewhat erroneously - referred to as interactivity.2  Entering commands through menus and dialog boxes is something that seems to belong to some border area between linguistic expression and action, since we don't actually instruct another human being, we rather transform and activate a tool we are using, by linguistic means. We use this small control device, called the mouse, to click on words and symbols, thus communicating with the computer according to a small vocabulary, that was once set up by the programmer. Also in Jacques Derrida, utterances are events of sorts - here the possibility of repetition is one of the constituting qualities.

The computer vocabulary is, however, rather poor. Most of the time, we may only say "OK" or "Cancel" or "Save". Somehow, this is a fascinating linguistic quick-sketch of life at the computer - and maybe of life in general. Should I stay or should I go, to be or not to be, run or hide, remember or forget, give up or keep on. "Do you wish to continue?" "OK." "Do you take Daisy Mae Leonard to be your lawful and wedded wife?" "OK" or "Cancel"?

When the computer goes on, "Are you really, totally, completely, beyond all doubt, absolutely certain that you wish to delete this file?", then one can't just cry back, "Yeah, goddammit, get rid of the blazing file right now!" All you can do is to humbly click OK. Furthermore, you often have to answer clear-cut yes-or-no questions with "OK" or "Cancel", due to sloppy interface design.

My own web browser sometimes turns to me and says, "You may not want to submit sensitive or private information via this form". And then it offers me "Cancel" and "OK" to choose between. What would OK mean in this case? That I agree that I might not want to submit sensitive or private information via that form? Or, that I think it is OK to do so, in spite of the risk?

In recent years the word OK has also come into use as the cue marker par préférence. When not signifying just a neutral "go on!", it also implies something of this vague consent, common in dialog boxes. But this also depends on how it is pronounced. If pronounced with a slightly hesitant end-tone, one gives the impression not to completely understand, or - which is probably the usual case - that one eagerly awaits the speaker to prove that he or she is not entirely talking nonsense, but that there is a point somewhere. This kind of "OK" implies a degree of expectation very close to zero, as opposed to the fervently interested, quickly interspersed and affirmative OK that has a sparring function.

Then, what does it really mean? And where does it come from? It has been spelt "okey", "okay", "okeh", "OK", and "O.K." People have guessed that the word originated in West Africa, or that it came from some native American language (e.g. Choctaw "oke", meaning "it is"), or from German or French ("au quai"). The Oxford English Dictionary has its first quotation from 1839, "a jocular alteration of the initial letters of all correct (i.e. orl korrect)". In English the acronym OK might be used as either adverb, adjective, verb, or noun.

This first quotation - from the Boston Morning Post of March 23rd 1839 - was found by Professor Alan Read at Columbia University, after two decades of research.3

Martin Van Buren - the eighth president of the US, aka Old Kinderhook - now appearing on each and every computer.

Today - especially within the cyber community - we indulge in a certain kind of punning, like for instance, "CU-SeeMe". In the 1830's people delighted in jocular misspellings - and the corresponding acronyms: "know yuse" (no use), abbreviated as "KY", or "nuff sed" (enough said), abbreviated as "NS". The invention "OK" was of course one of those, and it came into new use in 1840, when the eighth president of the US, democrat Martin Van Buren, started his campaign for reelection. He was known as Old Kinderhook, after his hometown in New York State, and his followers organized "The Democratic OK Club" to promote him.4

John Montgomery, founder of the corral and livery and feed stable at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, probably chose that name because it was in fashion at the time. So the present owner of the corral, Robert Love, tells me.

Since OK does not mean "all correct", but "oll korrect", one might suspect that the expression early acquired another meaning, that did not imply complete perfection, but rather something "good enough". Good enough is a phrase used in psychotherapy jargon, and in the 1970's the word OK found its way into that branch as well. Suddenly, we all were OK. I was OK, and you were OK too.

Now, speaking of these top-ten lists of the most common words - in which place does "OK" end up then? In the text database British National Corpus5 it is at place number 947, according to a count made in 1996. I have not found it at all in "Frequency Dictionary of Present-Day Swedish" (published 1970-80). Still, text collections like that do not yield information about the use of the word OK as a cue marker, as a general affirmative in speech, or as an execution initiator in computer programs. If one took all of these uses into account, my very rough guess is that "OK" would end up at least among the 200 most frequently used words.


1. Normal language is, of course, a very diffuse notion. It is not possible to create a generalized list of the most common words, only a list according to a certain corpus of texts. The representativeness depends upon how and when the material in the corpus has been collected. There is also a problem how to deal with different forms of the same word. If we count each form as a word in its own right, the above list is correct. But if we regard be, are, is, am etc. as one word, this lemma would immediately jump up to second place after the definite article. [Back]

2. Stewart Brand and Andy Lippman at MIT originally defined interactivity as something containting very few preconditions: "Mutual and simultaneous activity on the part of both participants, usually working towards some goal, but not necessarily." Furthermore, "graceful degradation" was required (how the system handles requests that it ought to be able to respond to but can't immediately) as well as "limited look-ahead" (not pre-computing responses too far ahead - being able to compose responses "on the fly"). [Back]

3. Read accounts for his research in American Speech XXXVIII (1963) and XXXIX (1964). [Back]

4. Oxford English Dictionary says 1840, but others claim that the word OK was used already during Van Buren's previous campaign in 1836. [Back]

5. The British National Corpus is a database of over one hundred million words of modern ( late twentieth century) British English, with 4,124 spoken and written texts (complete texts as well as extracts to a maximum of 45,000 words). See [Back]

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