I’ve been enjoying Allan Metcalf’s new book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, newly published by Oxford University Press.* Metcalf is the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, and he’s the author of another frequently-reached-for volume on my bookshelf, Predicting New Words. (I cited PNW in a recent post about failed portmanteau names.)
“OK,” Metcalf writes in an introduction, “is said to be the most frequently spoken (or typed) word on the planet, bigger even than an infant’s first word ma or the ubiquitous Coke. … It’s America’s answer to Shakespeare. It’s an entire philosophy expressed in two letters.”
Metcalf devotes almost half of OK to the word’s curious history. The late Allen Walker Read (1906-2002), whom Metcalf calls a “scholar without equal of American English,” discovered the first recorded use of OK in the March 23, 1839, edition of the Boston Morning Post, where it appeared as “o.k.,” with a clarifying “all correct” immediately following. Actually, “o.k.” stood for “oll korrect”: There was a craze in the late 1830s not just for abbreviations but for abbreviations of mangled spellings. Of these faddish coinages, only OK and “the three R’s” (reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic) survive.
All very interesting, but for me, the book’s most fascinating chapter is “The Business of OK,” which traces the paradoxical uses of OK in commerce. Why paradoxical? Because, writes Metcalf:
OK is just … OK. It is affirmative but value neutral. It affirms that something is satisfactory, but not that it stands out in any way from its peers. Would Satisfactory Soup sell? Would customers flock to a Satisfactory Coffee Shop? Would they book with a Satisfactory Travel Agency? Neither would they be stirred to patronize OK Soup, OK Coffee, or OK Travel.
On the other hand, consider the curious case of OK Soda—or, as Metcalf calls it, “Not So OK Soda.” His brief summary of the soda’s very brief history sent me rummaging through the Interwebs to learn more.
OK Soda can designed by cartoonist Daniel Clowes
OK Soda (styled as OK. Soda) was introduced by Coca-Cola in early 1993 into about 18 North American test markets—mostly mid-size cities like Austin and Denver. Coca-Cola’s CEO at the time was Roberto Goizueta, the man who had overseen the New Coke fiasco just a few years earlier; to launch OK Soda, Goizueta rehired the marketing executive directly responsible for New Coke. Ah, the mysterious ways of the Fortune 500!
OK Soda’s flavor (fruit-enhanced cola) was secondary to its attitude (affectless Gen X) and passive-aggressive marketing (the ad agency was Wieden + Kennedy, already famous for its work for Nike). The cans and the print ads featured blank-eyed portraits by alt-cartoonists Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) and Charles Burns (Black Hole). The product itself was called a carbonated “beverage” (you can detect the ironic-hipster quotes in the photo above); customers were invited to call 1-800-I-FEEL-OK and leave comments that “may be used in advertising or exploited in some other way we haven't figured out yet”; a ten-point “OK Manifesto” promulgated tepid maxims such as “There is no real secret to feeling OK” and “OK Soda may be the preferred drink of other people such as yourself.” (Source for this paragraph: the OK Soda Wikipedia entry.)
Metcalf writes about Coca-Cola’s efforts:
The company’s marketing department supposedly determined that OK was the best-known expression among all the world’s languages, and Coke was second best. They even go together: OK is Coke’s middle name (or letters). It’s possible that the worldwide success of Coke, like that of OK, involved the distinctive letters O and K and their sounds. But recognition does not necessarily mean enthusiasm.
And that information turned out to be irrelevant, anyhow. The company decided to name its product OK Soda, not OK Coke, and it was tested not all over the world but just in various locations in the United States. …
Coca-Cola even tried to get its term OK-ness added to the dictionary, with this definition: “An optimistic feeling that in spite of the complications of day-to-day life, things always work themselves out.” But you can’t change the meaning of a word by fiat, even the fiat of the world’s largest soft drink company.
OK Soda was an expensive flop; Coca-Cola aborted the product just seven months after its launch. It was never distributed nationally. Yet it enjoys an afterlife on the web (which, had it existed in 1993, might have saved the soda’s first life). There’s an “I Feel OK” page on Tribe.net, “a place for those who remember OK Soda to wax nostalgic, swap stories, and maybe even organize a petition to get it back on the market.” (That “maybe” is perfectly in keeping with OK Soda’s listless ethos.) Numerous bloggers have memorialized the product, and an OK Soda Facebook page attracted 731 followers before (fittingly) fizzling out shortly after it started.
I’m happy to report, however, that Allan Metcalf’s OK does not fizzle out. Instead, it concludes with an excellent chapter on I’m OK, You’re OK (30 years old; more than 7 million copies sold) and other exemplars of “the psychological OK,” which Metcalf calls “the self-empowering OK, a mantra of tolerance and acceptance unprecedented in our history.” He continues:
OK-ism (as we may term it) has developed without any assistance from philosophers, without any discussion among the literati or cognoscenti, without even an entry in Wikipedia. But it exerts a strong influence on us and our twenty-first-century world. OK has made tolerance more tolerable.
One can only hope.
* I received a review copy of the book from the publisher.