Why it’s O.K. to say it’s O.K.

Years ago I become a member of a small but increasing tribe who rose up and began protesting the use of the word “O.K.”. We certainly didn’t want it removed from the English language. We just wanted it to stop being a substitute response to someone when facing someone who is confessing that they have  committed an offense and are seeking forgiveness. In this context, “it’s O.K.”  standing in for  the more proper “I forgive you”. “I forgive you” seems so much more powerful, more vulnerable, truer to the core than the slangish shorthand, “it’s O.K.”. Today I’m officially leaving the aforementioned tribe.

I was researching the phrase “it’s O.K.” and found this bit online etymology:

There have been numerous attempts to explain the emergence of this expression, which seems to have swept into popular use in the US during the mid-19th century. Most of them are pure speculation. It does not seem at all likely, from the linguistic and historical evidence, that it comes from the Scots expression och aye, the Greek ola kala (‘it is good’), the Choctaw Indian oke or okeh (‘it is so’), the French aux Cayes (‘from Cayes’, a port in Haiti with a reputation for good rum) or au quai (‘to the quay’, as supposedly used by French-speaking dockers), or the initials of a railway freight agent called Obediah Kelly who is said to have written them on documents he had checked.

A more likely explanation is that the term originated as an abbreviation of orl korrekt , a jokey misspelling of ‘all correct’ which was current in the US in the 1830s. The oldest written references result from its use as a slogan by the Democratic party during the American Presidential election of 1840. Their candidate, President Martin Van Buren, was nicknamed ‘Old Kinderhook’ (after his birthplace in New York State), and his supporters formed the ‘OK Club’. This undoubtedly helped to popularize the term (though it did not get President Van Buren re-elected).

The only other theory with at least a degree of plausibility is that the term originated among Black slaves of West African origin, and represents a word meaning ‘all right, yes indeed’ in various West African languages. Unfortunately, historical evidence enabling the origin of this expression to be finally and firmly established may be hard to unearth.

The last definition “all right, yes indeed” seems inclusive in the best sense of the other possible original meanings. When we say “it’s O.K.” to someone that has wronged us, what we are saying in essence is that despite their present sense that everything is not alright, correct or in order, it is. We are performing a powerful act of deception that opens up the possibility to walk a truer path. The Christian tradition has called this “imputation”, a term that involves crediting something to someone’s account that they don’t have, but desperately need: righteousness. It’s at the heart of the story of every imperfect, fallen, faltering and fragile person that somehow starts anew.

Saying “it’s O.K.” is a powerful statement that does not, if understood properly, subvert or end around the phrase “I forgive you”, but actually names the state of affairs the person seeking forgiveness most deeply desires. We all want to believe in the moment when we realize we need to seek forgiveness that the wrong doing and the pain and shame that it caused could somehow be wiped away and that things could be alright. We want things to be “O.K”, and they can be. It really can be O.K. Hearing that pronounced is like opening a gift two days before Christmas, or glimpsing a beautiful bride an hour before the wedding. It’s something that can bring the future into the present and begin the magic of making things alright.