Oxford University Press has been sending me review copies of its language-related books, and they’re starting to pile up, and the gift-giving season is approaching, so I figured it was a good time to start letting y’all know about them. I’ll start with a few, then continue in a later post.
OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, by Allan Metcalf, is a thorough investigation of the history and uses of a great American lexeme. The author, a professor of English and Executive Secretary of the American Dialect Society, starts with the humble origin of the term in an 1839 column in the Boston Morning Post (“He.. would have the ‘contribution box’, et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward”), as discovered by the great scholar Allen Walker Read almost half a century ago, and shows (following Read) how it was part of a craze for jocular abbreviations such as I.S.B.D. (“it shall be done”) and R.T.B.S. (“remains to be seen”); he points out that “these initialisms are not so different from those used in internet chat today,” though back then it was combined with a fad for humorous misspellings (there was an O.W. for “all right” as well). Then the presidential election of 1840, in which the initial letters of Old Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren’s nickname, were used as an electoral slogan, combining with the preexisting slang term in usages like this: “We acknowledge the receipt of a very pretty gold Pin,… having upon it the (to the ‘Whigs’) very frightful letters O.K., significant of the birth-place of Martin Van Buren, old Kinderhook, as also the rallying word of the Democracy of the late election, ‘all correct’… Those who wear them should bear in mind that it will require their most strenuous exertions… to make all things O.K.” And then there was no stopping it. Metcalf discusses hoaxes, false origins (no, it’s not Choctaw, as I once gullibly reported), and its use in business, literature, and other areas, as well as its spread around the world. Fun and educational!
Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, by David Crystal. I’m a fan of Crystal’s (I loved his edition of Fowler), and he does a good job here investigating (and trying to quantify) the influence of the Authorized Version on the language. He’s well aware that “Much of the memorable linguistic distinctiveness of the King James Bible in fact originated in Tyndale,” and he uses Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale’s Psalter, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, and Douai-Rheims as points of comparison. His preface ends: “We find biblical expressions appearing in such disparate worlds as nuclear physics, court cases, TV sitcoms, recipe books, punk rock lyrics, and video games. Those are the worlds this book will explore.” Speaking of music, I have to register mild outrage at his citing Boney M’s Eurodisco version of “Rivers of Babylon” rather than the great original by the Melodians, but there’s no accounting for taste.

Short Cuts: A Guide to Oaths, Ring Tones, Ransom Notes, Famous Last Words, and Other Forms of Minimalist Communication, by Alexander and Nicholas Humez (brothers who have collaborated on other language books—the surname is pronounced hyu-MAY) and Rob Flynn (a computer industry writer); the subtitle gives an idea of the kind of material covered, and it’s full of etymological information like (in the “In and Out of Trouble” chapter, discussing parking tickets) “A ticket was originally a stick: Old French estiquet—whence etiquette—was a Germanic borrowing originally meaning a branch or switch stuck in the ground as a target for practice shots but later taking on the meaning of ‘note, label’ and random nuggets like (in the Police Blotter section, quoted from the Ellsworth American) “A suspected dead body in the Penobscot River June 27 turned out to be a blue bucket.” Ideal to keep around for those occasions when you don’t have time to immerse yourself in anything but want a quick informative nibble. (Full disclosure: I copyedited the book and am thanked in the acknowledgments.)
Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology, by Jonathon Keats (author of Wired‘s “Jargon Watch”), examines how techie words get coined and why some (like blog) succeed while others (like flog, a “flack blog” by marketers that pretends to be by ordinary people) fail. I was won over by the discussion of w00t, which cites Grant Barrett’s essay on the word’s history, deriving it from two 1993 dance songs, and discusses the “fast and furious” response from gamers (for whom “it was self-evident that w00t belonged to leet, a semi-encrypted form of English that evolved on Internet relay chat and bulletin board systems in the 1980s”) and Barrett’s thorough counter-response.


  1. The capitalized word Democracy ‘the Democratic party, its members, or [per the OED] its principles’ is interestingly 19th-century.

  2. Many years ago I read “Alpha to Omega: The Life & Times of the Greek Alphabet” and ABC Et Cetera: The Life & Times of the Roman Alphabet.” They’re both by Alexander and Nicholas Humez and both are a treat. “Short Cuts” has to go on my short list.

  3. “is interestingly 19th-century”: it certainly is -fancy the the Democratic party having principles.

  4. People say “that’s okay” when it’s really not okay. People say “that’s all right” when it’s really not all right. To say that they’re just “being polite” doesn’t work, since it happens in many different contexts.
    “You want fries with that?”
    “That’s okay.”
    “You need a bag?”
    “No, that’s okay.”
    “The pie is $2.99. You want it?”
    “That’s all right.”
    “Okay then.”
    “I’m mean no that’s okay, I don’t want the pie.”
    “For here or to go?”
    “That’s okay, I’ll have it here.”
    When did they start doing that? I caught June Lockhart saying “That’s okay” for something she didn’t want, in an episode of Lost in Space.
    This is where etiquette intersects with semantics. How do I tactfully find out what the person really means, and if I misunderstand, whose fault is it?
    The customer in the above example isn’t really trying to save the cashier’s feelings from getting hurt. So why not say “No, thanks” instead?
    I sure hope Allan Metcalf deals with those issues, does he?

  5. You often find yourself wondering if people mean, ‘Sure, thanks,’ when they say, ‘That’s ok’?

  6. If you are ever offered tea in Arabic and find yourself saying “shokran” (thank you), you will find you have just given a polite refusal.

  7. People say “that’s okay” when it’s really not okay.
    This is a standard feature of human communication, and it is not recent.

  8. This is a standard feature of human communication, and it is not recent.
    What do you mean by standard feature ? Something like “being politely non-committal on the face of it, but expecting this to be understood as having declined the offer” ? Danke (but not Ja, danke, strangely enough) seems to be like Nijma’s “shokran” in that respect. Nearer to home we have such self-deprecating sneakiness as mais je vous en prie !, and of course “That’s okay”.
    I think it’s significant that this kind of locution is likely to be understood only when both persons involved are in the presence of each other (or also, nowadays, in a telephone conversation with each other). These locutions would suffer from ambiguity in a novel, say, unless there was enough supporting detail to enable the reader to recognize the vis-a-vis situation.

  9. “You want fries with that?”
    “That’s okay.”

    I don’t think I would ever interpret this as accepting the offer of French fries.
    “You want fries with that?”
    “Okay [=yes]”
    “You want fries with that?”
    “That[the current situation of being fry-less]‘s okay”
    To me these are clearly different answers. I realize this is not really consistent, since “Sounds good” and “That sounds good” are equivalent responses (they both mean yes), while “Okay” and “That’s okay” are different. The “that” refers to two different things in the two different cases. Not exactly logical but I’m surprised any (native speaker) would interpret it differently. Maybe an age difference or a geographical thing?

  10. marie-lucie says:

    In the little conversation above, the first “that’s okay” reinforces “no” (it means, “I’m satisfied with what I already ordered and don’t want the extra item”), but the misunderstanding occurs with “that’s all right” which seems to imply that it has a different meaning from “that’s okay”.
    In French the situation with “merci” is similar to what is reported for the Arabic and German equivalents. I guess that in all three languages there must be more subtleties, not easily reproducible in writing.
    In French you can decline an offer (usually of extra food or drink) by saying “merci”, especially if the offer disturbs you while you are busy with something else (for instance by a waiter interrupting your conversation with a friend while the two of you are consuming whatever you already ordered), or in a social situation where you want to gratefully acknowledge the offer but also refuse it (“non” would be quite rude). In this case you will say “merci” in a low tone and with a facial expression and/or small hand gesture which confirms the negative. To accept the suggestion you say “oui, merci” in a higher, more positive tone of voice. To actually thank a person for giving you what you wanted, your say “merci” in a higher, more forceful tone than for a refusal. “Non merci” is a more forceful refusal than negative “merci”, if you are in a situation where it is reasonable for another person to think that you might want something (such as a croissant with the coffee you just ordered) and you need to make it clear that you don’t want it.
    The difference between negative “merci” and “non merci” is similar to that between English “no thanks” or “that’s okay” uttered casually and in passing, in a low tone, and “No thanks” in a more forceful tone, in order to definitely refuse whatever is offered.
    Sometimes you can use “merci!” in a forceful tone to indicate your distaste for something, (like “Thanks a lot!” in English), as in La retraite à 70 ans, merci! (“Retirement at age 70, thanks a lot!”).

  11. The few dictionaries I’ve looked in don’t mention the ambiguity. I looked in a two volume, compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and it doesn’t seem to list the word at all!

  12. merci in a low tone
    Danke in a low tone, slight final fall
    “Thanks, but no thanks” in a sprightly tone, slight final fall

  13. And of course, there is Japanese 結構です kekkō desu, which can (depending on how it is delivered) mean ‘That would be nice’ or ‘No thanks’. (Actually, I think 結構ですね kekkō desu ne would mean ‘That would be nice’. A straight 結構です kekkō desu means ‘No thank you’.)

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    Note also “I’m good” as a way of indicating polite refusal (although my nine-year-old can do it in a very truculent way when she wants to!), presumably parallel to the “that’s okay” noted above — i.e. indicating that the status quo is just fine with no need for whatever addition/modification was just proposed.
    As to Rivers of Babylon, to be fair to Crystal he’s a Brit and the Boney M. version was a massive massive hit over there, so more Brit readers would know the song in that version and it might be in that context excessively hipster/elitist to go back to the Melodians. Whereas in the U.S. I think a much lower %age will know the song at all but those who do are more likely to know it in the Melodians version, quite likely via (either directly or indirectly) the Harder They Come soundtrack. I think I’ve noted before that in my unchurched teens my primary exposure to the King James Version register of English was via reggae records (plus probably also to some extent Tolkein and various Tolkeinesque imitators in genre fiction, but they didn’t do it as well as the reggae guys did).

  15. quite likely via (either directly or indirectly) the Harder They Come soundtrack
    That’s the case with me. Was that not a hit in the UK? I thought reggae was popular there.

  16. @stephen: dictionaries don’t have much time or space to discuss discourse markers, or pragmatics generally. Here instead is Erik Schleef:

    okay can fulfill functions at many level of discourse. At the ideational level it functions as an adjective or adverb (Bangerter and Clark, 2003), it signifies approval, acceptance and confirmation by the speaker (Condon, 1986; Merritt, 1984), and affirmatively responds to a question (Guthrie, 1997; Heisler, 1996). In this function it is frequently discussed as a third turn receipt by a current speaker (Bangerter and Clark, 2003; Guthrie, 1997; Beach, 1993). Okay has also been described as serving a variety of text-structural functions as a marker of information-state transitions. Several studies describe this function of okay, frequently, however, labeling the phenomenon differently (Levin and Gray, 1983; Merritt, 1984; Condon, 1986; Heisler, 1996; Rendle-Short, 2000; Swales and Malczewski, 2001; Bangerter and Clark, 2003). Several studies subdivide this structural type of okay, usually, however, these subdivisions refer to the place where structural okay occurs or to the type of new section it opens up. Okay functions as a pre-closing device (Schegloff and Sacks, 1973; Bangerter and Clark, 2003), it marks a return from a digression (Bangerter and Clark, 2003), functions as a text bracketing device (Rendle-Short, 2000), occurs in introductory or conclusion position (Levin and Gray, 1983), or as an attention getter at the beginning of an interaction (Heisler, 1996). Finally okay and alright are frequently mentioned in their function of backchannel signal (Heisler, 1996; Swales and Malczewski, 2001)

    “A cross-cultural investigation of German and American academic style”, Journal of Pragmatics (June 2009) Volume 41 Number 6 Page 1108 Footnote 22

  17. “Was that not a hit in the UK? I thought reggae was popular there.” tells me
    - the Melodians had a total of 1 weeks in the UK Top 75 (“Sweet Sensation” in 1970).
    - Boney M had 9 consecutive Top 10 hits, with “Rivers Of Babylon/Brown Girl In The Ring” spending 4 weeks at #1.
    My own view is that Boney M’s version is as successful a dance rehash as, say, the works of Fatboy Slim; but of course the uptempo disco beat is in absurd contrast with the sense of the lyrics.

  18. Stephen Mulraney says:

    If you are ever offered tea in Polish and find yourself saying “dziękuję” (thank you), you will find you have just given a polite refusal.
    Also, if you say it to a waiter when you’re paying, don’t expect to get any change back. (If you want change you say “proszę”, i.e. please, or rather, there you go).
    I was just thinking today that the ritual of thanks-saying is quite universal, regardless of how polite a society actually is, and that its popularity is probably boosted by its pragmatic role as an end-of-interaction marker (personally, I just say “EOI”).

  19. the Melodians had a total of 1 weeks in the UK Top 75
    I wasn’t asking about them in particular but about the soundtrack, which was a huge factor in the popularity of reggae in the US. But apparently not in the UK.

  20. a craze for jocular abbreviations such as I.S.B.D. (“it shall be done”) and R.T.B.S. (“remains to be seen”); he points out that “these initialisms are not so different from those used in internet chat today,” though back then it was combined with a fad for humorous misspellings (there was an O.W. for “all right” as well)
    IMHO, there’s no change there AFAIK. IYKWIMAITYD.

  21. Thanks, everybody.

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