Book - OK

Tony Cross discovers that the Object Lessons book by Michelle McSweeney, published by Bloomsbury Academic, is more than just OK...

‘OK’, by Michelle McSweeney is part of the Object Lessons series. These books take a single item and focus on telling its story. In this case McSweeney has a single word: ‘OK’. The book lays out the origins of ‘OK’, some of the myths that have arisen around it, its development and how it has adapted to technological change. Incidentally it also delivers insights into language, communication technology and history. It manages to do so in only 144 pages.

McSweeney makes the case that OK is, “…central to how we communicate”. She also notes: “But you and I are not the first to notice that OK is special, and this isn’t even the first book about OK. There are three research papers and one book (at least) that focus solely on OK.” And indeed the early part of the book draws heavily on these works, especially Allen Walker Reid’s. The good thing is McSweeney doesn’t try to hide this and – miracle of miracles – this book comes with notes and an actual bibliography so you can check references.

There is a lot of information packed into this book. Each section has contextualises the history, the culture and then how OK was slotted into each changing communication type. So, we travel from the Penny Press, to the Telegram, to the Telephone, to Television, to Email, to Social Media into the present. Each time McSweeney talks about how OK slotted in and morphed with each step. There are a lot of reasons why OK becomes so entrenched in the language. Each change in technology seems to help hammer it deeper and deeper into the culture so that what started off as a bit of linguistic play in the Boston Morning Post, was swept into American politics - and Andrew Jackson crops up a lot in the early part of the book, and then go swallowed into the American lexicon in time for the telegram and telephone to cement it into place.

The next stage of its journey was global. Like a verbal virus. Spreading alongside American TV and film to the rest of the world on the back of the Cold War and then with the arrival of the internet and the dominance of American English in the online world. McSweeney explains the origins of that dominance, and why it has continued.

McSweeney does an excellent job of conveying a lot of facts in a way that doesn’t sound like an info dump even as she is dumping information. So, in a single paragraph she can summarise a whole era in clear and concise way, like this: “Meanwhile, the United States and Russia were deeply engaged in the Cold War, and were battling for cultural, social, and political power in countries around the world. The primary export of this period was political ideology, culture, and language. Consuming media was one way to align with American culture and values.”

I found the whole book a quick and fascinating read. ‘OK’ is not a word you think a lot about until you read this and realise how ubiquitous it is and how well suited it is for the modern world. It has multiple uses, is easy to hear and easy to understand.

It’s one of those books that you think you don’t need to read but then serves up so many good stories or so much interesting information that you finish it happy to have read it. Short, but mentally nutritious.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

Image - Amazon (US import)

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