Glossary: If it's OK by you, I love it

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING to the Coca-Cola company, the phrase OK is the most widely recognised in the world. The same research puts the name Coca-Cola in second spot, so you will have to make your own judgements about the validity1 of the finding. They believe it, anyway, and are now making a cunning bid for the number one spot by appropriating the phrase for a new soft drink, aimed especially at teenagers and young adults.

OK soda ( Coca-Cola) is probably as gassy and unremarkable as its predecessors but the marketing campaign is undoubtedly different. 'It underpromises,' Brian Lanahan, Coke's manager of special projects, told Time magazine. 'It doesn't say, 'This is the next great thing'. ' The can is decorated with studiously glum images of a pale young man: sitting in an industrial landscape; wandering alone down a street.

A message round the lip reads: 'OK soda says 'Don't be fooled into thinking there has to be a reason for everything'.' The company has also set up phone hotlines which teenagers can ring to give their opinions of the product - approving or contemptuous.

OK presumably appealed to Coca-Cola because the letters already occur at the heart of their most valuable brand - Coke (just wait for the cross-promotion). But it's also a phrase which has a useful ambiguity - they want to appeal to the adolescent2 refusal to be impressed, to teenagers' sense of themselves as sardonic and unsurprisable ('Yeah - it's OK, I s'pose').

At the same time they don't want to depress a body of consumers who already have diminished expectations - so one of the campaign slogans runs 'OK- ness is the belief that, no matter what, things are going to be OK'.

OK is still going strong (including variant spellings, it appeared on our database 5,497 times in the past 12 months, pretty good going for a piece of slang) but it has lost the aggression it displayed during the early Seventies, when it was famously used as an intimidating interrogation at the end of bits of graffiti ('Arsenal Rule OK'). The broadcaster and writer on language, Nigel Rees, dates this particular usage back to IRA graffitists of the Sixties, though one correspondent to the Times claimed that it derived from Scottish razor gangs of the Thirties.

The latter sounds more convincing to me - there is a nasty edge of coercion in it - 'Agree with me? Fine, I won't cut you' - and the timing seems more likely, too. Although the phrase appeared in British usage in the last century it was given much wider currency by the arrival of talkies - The Jazz Singer was made in 1927 and Public Enemy, Cagney's big hit, in 1931. It's easy to imagine Glasgow thugs modelling their speech on those early gangster movies.

The origins of OK itself are much more vexed. Partridge warns that it is a staple of the correspondence columns, and competing explanations still exist. The two front-runners are these: that it derives from the habit of US President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) of signing documents 'OK', in the belief that this was the correct acronym for 'all correct' ('orl korrect'), or that it is a shortened form of the American Indian Choctaw word oke, which means 'it is so'.

Enemies of Jackson were naturally happy to put about the former, which cast a tactical light on their opponent's educational rough edges. Perhaps it was this that inclined a later President, Woodrow Wilson, to always sign his documents 'okeh'. When asked why, he insisted on the Choctaw derivation.

Wherever it came from, it spread faster than necrotising fasciitis3 . The earliest citations are from 1839 and by the following year a doggerel writer was able to write this: 'What is't that ails the people Joe?/They're in a kurious way/For everywhere I chance to go/There's nothing but OK'

It was given a further boost when supporters of the Democratic politician Martin van Buren used it as an allusion to his nickname, Old Kinderhook, after his place of birth (an account which has sometimes been advanced as an alternative etymology, but which seems to be ruled out by timing alone).

It isn't difficult to see why it should have been adopted so immediately, as a verb, a noun and an adjective. Its brevity - a little linguistic nod - is just right for the sort of routine permissions it describes in its verb form and it's extremely useful as the smallest denomination of acceptability. Nuance expands its repertoire further - in a restaurant 'It's OK' can mean 'It's awful, but I can't find any grounds to bring a legal action', or 'Much better than I expected, thank you'.

But the clumsy hipness of the Coca-Cola campaign is aiming at something a little better than that - they want to revive another usage still, the Fifties sense of OK as fashionable or widely accepted. If everything goes according to plan, OK will be the okay thing to drink and Coca- Cola will have carved another substantial slice out of the pounds 3bn that American teenagers spend every year on slaking their thirsts.

1 /From the Latin validus, strong, powerful. Valere, to be strong.

2 /From the Latin adolescere, to grow up. Adult is from adultus, past participle of the same verb.

3 /From the Greek nekrosis, state of death (nekroun, to kill). Fasciitis is an inflammation of a fascia, a thin sheath of fibrous tissue which supports muscle or an organ.