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Sunday, April 24, 2011

The US contribution to the world's languages

By Dick Hirsch

Why didn’t I pay closer attention in Spanish class? Shame on me. It is one of my great regrets that the only language I can use with any degree of expertise is English. Oh, I still retain a few words en Espanol, words like sombrero, bano, hasta la vista and muchas gracias, but they don’t provide much of a testimonial to either my ability as a linguist or the classes I attended.

Just a few weeks ago I spotted a woman at the supermarket who had been in my Spanish class a long time ago. I couldn’t resist the opportunity, so I pushed the cart in her direction, stopped and tried a new opening line:

“Buenos tardes, Senorita Abramowitz,” I said.

She stared blankly, wondering who I was and what I could possibly be thinking. I suppose I should be grateful she didn’t hurry off in the other direction in search of a store security guard.

“It’s me, Senor Ricardo Hirsch,” I explained. “I was in your Spanish class.”

There was that delightful instant of recognition and remembrance and the realization that we had been reunited by Spanish. We talked for a moment and I admitted I had nearly exhausted my entire Spanish vocabulary with that greeting to her. She said she, too, wished she had retained more because she spends part of each year in Arizona. Then we said “adios,” and proceeded with our shopping. That brief interlude provided a sad insight into my education. I hope the teaching of language has improved in the intervening years.

That meeting started me thinking about my own dialogues with non-English speakers, both in the US and other places I’ve traveled. I somehow manage to get along, whenever possible stressing the use of one word that seems to be in general use all over the world. Or is it a word? Or maybe it is an abbreviation.

The word is OK.

Anywhere in the world, whether asking directions from a gendarme in Paris or ordering dinner in Istanbul, OK works. It is a reliable, understandable staple in languages other than English, too. OK may be our most significant contribution to understanding, both domestic and foreign. It works fine everywhere in virtually any situation. I doubt there is a day that passes that I don’t say “OK” several times and that certainly isn’t just because I am such an agreeable guy. It is because the word is so universally familiar, adaptable and comfortable to use. It is used as the instrument to approve orders, invoices, manuscripts and arrangements of virtually any kind. OK could emerge in dialogue with a waiter in Mexico City or a bus driver in Munich. The whole world understands and subscribes to its use.

It was always my opinion that the term originated in New York State, during the presidential campaign of Martin Van Buren. I’ve read that and many people have repeated the story. It is an extremely popular explanation, especially in Kinderhook, New York, in the Hudson Valley, the birthplace of Van Buren, the eighth president of the US. Kinderhook today is a scenic village on the Hudson River in Columbia County and although we seldom hear much about either Kinderhook or Van Buren, the village and its most famous personage have been acclaimed as the source of OK. Van Buren served from 1837-1841 and, when he sought a second term, was defeated by William Henry Harrison. In that unsuccessful campaign, Van Buren was known as being OK, supposedly short for “Old Kinderhook.” Harrison won, but his was the shortest incumbency in history. He was inaugurated March 4, 1841, a miserable, rainy day. He made a meandering speech and caught a cold which turned into pneumonia. He died a month after the inaugural and was succeeded by his vice president, another seldom remembered president, John Tyler of Virginia.

In a new book, “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word” (Oxford University Press), historian Allan Metcalfe insists the rights to the coinage of OK actually belong not to Old Kinderhook, but to his predecessor in office, Andrew Jackson, a man of the people, but a terrible speller. Once in the White House, Jackson began approving documents by declaring them “oll korrect,” and inscribing them with his shortened version, “OK.” Then, as now, the President was a trend-setter, and OK was adopted by others, including newspaper editors.

Where would we all be without OK? We would be forced to use “approved,” as in that familiar tag line, “I am Dick Hirsch and I approved this column.”



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