OK, that’s a Word

I’m fascinated by language and often take notice of the words that people (sometimes unknowingly) tend to use. As an aside and to be upfront, I’m really big on words like ‘certainly’ and ‘ultimately’; they just sound nice and dramatic to me.

One term that I had never really considered was ‘OK’; it is used so frequently by so many people. My interest was piqued by this fantastic video on Vox, which explains the history behind this now ubiquitous word. I had originally heard that it came from the wartime display of ‘zero kills’ after a successful day on the battlefield, however, this is one of many fake stories (as the video explains). Instead, it comes from the 19th-century trend of creating humorous abbreviations and phrases for other pre-existing terms. (I won’t ruin the rest of the story… you should just watch the clip.)

All of this made me think more deeply about why I find other current, ubiquitous words frustrating, such as ‘like’ and ‘literally’… so why not the word ‘OK’? After all, it is even more common and as a phrase from the United States, is a shining example of American influence on all global ‘Englishes’.

I arrived at the following conclusion: it comes down to the usefulness and purpose of such a word. If there is an intention behind the creation of a new word or the alteration of an existing one’s meaning, this is a sign of language adapting, improving and perhaps even filling a gap. A term like ‘OK’, with its neutral yet affirmative nature, according to the video, did not exist in English beforehand. ‘Yes’ is simply too definite and much less versatile. You can say ‘Are you OK?’ but you can’t say ‘Are you yes?’.

Other examples include the transformation of the word ‘access’ into a verb. This may be excruciating for some (such as my extended family) but it now fills a gap. ‘Accessing’ is a major feature of computer language and dialogue boxes, such as when waiting for a connection to be established to a file, site or other content. A word like ‘retrieving’ doesn’t work.

The words ‘like’ and ‘literally’ are frustrating because they are not so much the evolution of language but pure mistakes. ‘Like’ is useless filler, a strange interjection where ‘um’, ‘ah’ or ‘hmm’ would suffice. Outside of its proper usage, such as ‘I like jam’, it only serves to disrupt the flow of any given sentence. ‘Literally’ is even more annoying, since it is used instead of ‘actually’ or ‘really’. The original definition of this word is being misunderstood and eroded, not enhanced. If and when all people start to misuse this word, will we actually lose the word’s original meaning and literally have to replace it with something else?

To avoid obsessing entirely about only these two words, another made-up term that I hear frequently is ‘learnings’… wrong. We already have the word ‘lesson(s)’; ‘learning’ is an abstract noun that can’t be used as a plural. Again, this is an error that only leads to ambiguity and confusion. How many ‘learnings’ can one learn whilst learning?

Some may argue that the word ‘gay’ fits into this category, as prior to its being synonymous with ‘homosexual’, it meant that one is happy. I argue that this is different. The word ‘gay’ has gained an extra meaning and now benefits from the positivity of its original definition. ‘Literally’, however, is now used in a way that makes no sense and conflicts its real definition.

What I’m getting at is that we shouldn’t be linguistically deterministic. To totally standardise and clamp down on language is to stifle its evolution—how else would we have so many languages and dialects today? We can’t, however, swing back too far the other way and just accept anything and everything. My only issue is when changes are based on error rather than invention, creativity or cultural nuance.

‘OK’ is an example of true linguistic creativity; it is a word that has come to be so versatile and significant for so many people. If anything, it’s the ultimate symbol of Americanisation/globalisation, spanning not only English-speaking nations but also infecting others’ languages. You know what, though? It has filled a gap. It’s a word that affirms and unites everyone and I’m cool with it. OK?

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