OK God, Now What?

Title of a book by Donald C. Mann

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The title for this chapter doesn't mean what you probably assume it means. I will clarify at the end.

Followers of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or any of the smaller religions centered around the God of Abraham, might reasonably ask a non-believer, "If our God is a myth, how did He come to have literally billions of worshippers, more than half the population of all of Earth?"

That is indeed a fair question. Through human history and across all cultures, there have been many different gods. Among those remembered by history, the ancient Greeks had quite a lot of gods living out eventful and colorful existences, as did the people of Scandinavia. All of those gods are now regarded as pure myth, none of them with any significant number of true followers today. (You can find out about the gods of many cultures at Wikipedia: Pantheon (religion), and this, of course, doesn't include the innumerable gods that no one at all remembers today.) So how, if He doesn't really exist, could the God of Abraham manage to swamp all other gods and take over as, in a sense, the God of All Mankind?

Well, there's an interesting analogy that may shed some light.

Many stories have been told about where the English-language word "okay" came from. None of the most widely-noted origin stories are actually true as to the first use of the word, though some of them contain important shards of truth.

In the book OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word, author Allan Metcalf explores the bizarre history of a word that (I'm using the following phrasing intentionally) has come to swamp all synonyms and take over as, in a sense, the Word of All Mankind.

Dr. Metcalf, I should note, knows what he is talking about relative to the history and usage of English words. He is a professor of English at MacMurray College, has served as chair of the English department at the college, and since 1981 has been (still is, as of this writing in 2015) the executive director of the American Dialect Society. In the book, Dr. Metcalf has assembled exhaustive research by language experts, including that of Dr. Allen Walker Read, who found the original citation described below.

In the 1830s and 1840s, there was a widespread fad, among editors of newspapers (and this was an era in which pretty much everyone read newspapers) for abbreviations taken to an absurd level as a form of humor. The fad centered around the Boston Morning Post, the leading (and thus much quoted) newspaper of that city, and its editor Charles Gordon Greene. Greene peppered his articles in the Post with abbreviations so obscure they usually had to be explained on the spot (defeating the purpose, but that was part of the joke), such as R.T.B.S. ("remains to be seen"), S.P. ("small potatoes", as in "no big deal"), and even W.O.O.O.F.C. ("with one of our first citizens"). (Dr. Metcalf points out that the fad has been resurrected today in online communications, so that abbreviations such as BTW ["by the way"], LOL ["laughing out loud"], and IMHO ["in my humble opinion"] are widely recognized and understood, along with others which, like Greene's in the 19th century, need to be explained when used.)

Greene sometimes took the joke a step farther, basing an abbreviation on a ludicrous misspelling of the phrase being abbreviated. In 1838, for example, Greene used the abbreviation "o.w." to stand for "all right," based on pretending the phrase was spelled "oll write."

A year later, on March 23, 1839, Greene was similarly moved to use "o.k." to abbreviate "all correct," pretending that it was spelled "oll korrect." (We know that is what he meant by o.k., because he followed his use of o.k. with an explication "all correct.") Despite exhaustive searching, no one has ever found an earlier use of the abbreviation o.k. with that meaning, or any other meaning equivalent to the way o.k. is used today -- it appears Greene spontaneously invented it that day, in keeping with his habit of doing exactly the same sort of thing with other phrases.

Other newspapers, for reasons not at all obvious, seem to have been rather taken with that handy abbreviation, and "o.k." (again explained immediately to mean "all correct") started showing up with increasing frequency in other papers, in other cities, through 1839 and 1840.

If you have heard previous histories of "o.k.", you may have been told it originated with Martin Van Buren's 1840 presidential campaign. That is not its original source, but that campaign did help spread o.k. more widely. For that 1840 campaign, fans of the president played on the growing popularity of the abbreviation o.k.: they took to referring to Van Buren as "Old Kinderhook" (for his hometown, Kinderhook, New York), and formed organizations for his support that they called "O.K. Clubs." The first meeting of an O.K. Club was announced by the Tammany Society, a major center of power in the Democratic Party in New York, on March 23, 1840, coincidentally the first anniversary of the invention of o.k. It should be noted that, though Van Buren was first elected in 1836, there is no reference to him as "Old Kinderhook" nor to any "O.K. Club" in any literature (political handbills, newspaper articles) from that earlier campaign. But such clubs flourished in 1840, on the strength of spreading use of the term "o.k." for "all correct." Mentions of O.K. Clubs in 1840 campaign literature often made use of both the fact of Van Buren being "Old Kinderhook" and o.k. standing for "all correct," with the intention of implying that everyone found Van Buren's policies agreeable and acceptable. (They weren't. He lost.)

If you have heard that Andrew Jackson, when he was president in the early 1830s, used to approve papers presented to him with the letters "o.k." because he thought "all correct" was spelled "oll kurrek," that was a hoax, and the hoax was perpetrated in 1840 as a slap at the man who had been Jackson's vice-president and chosen successor: Martin Van Buren. The date tells us that this hoax is not the original source of o.k., but the hoax was crucially important: it gave rise to the idea that one might authorize an action by giving it the o.k. Of all the different ways today in which "o.k." is used, this might be said to be the primary modern meaning.

So an abbreviation invented on March 23, 1839 -- who would have thought o.k. would be known to have such a specific date of birth? -- spread quickly, helped along by its coincidental usefulness in a presidential campaign (on both sides), and over the years it acquired a spelling ("okay") as a word in its own right. Where does it stand today?

Dr. Metcalf lists Dutch, German, Swedish, Polish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Welsh, Hebrew, Korean, and Japanese as languages whose speakers make use of "okay" sufficiently often that the word can be considered part of those languages -- and he points out that is only a partial list. This despite the fact that most of those languages already had a word that meant essentially the same thing. In Hebrew, as one example, there is a word, "b'seder," which means "in order," as in "everything is the way it should be, it's all in order." It is used in pretty much any context in which "okay" could be used -- but today, speakers of Hebrew use "okay" more often than "b'seder." "Okay" is driving "b'seder" out of the Hebrew language and replacing it.

I can even add two more languages to that list. Sometimes I watch foreign films. I watch them with subtitles, as I only know a small bit of French, German, and Spanish, and almost nothing in any other language. But I can hear the foreign language dialogue, of course. I have heard the word "okay" used in a French-language movie (made in France, written by a French screenwriter, with French actors playing French characters speaking French), and I have heard it in a Norwegian movie (made in Norway, written by a Norwegian, spoken by Norwegians playing Norwegians speaking Norwegian). In both cases the word, spoken out loud in the dialogue of the film, was also rendered as "okay" in the subtitles. To hear it used in French dialogue leaves me as surprised as it is possible to be. The French are extremely touchy about foreign incursions into their language (especially from English) -- and French, like Hebrew, already has a word that can be used in most situations where "okay" would be appropriate; in French it is "d'accord." Yet the French now casually drop "okay" into conversation.

So in the span of less than two centuries, a joke abbreviation invented by an idiosyncratic newspaper editor in Boston has emerged from obscurity, in which its meaning had to be explained, to become an indispensable word used daily by billions of people in nearly all of the world's major languages, replacing existing words (sometimes more than one) in those languages. This, despite an exactly equivalent invention, "o.w." for "all right," having dropped out of sight immediately without leaving a trace.

Looking back at the title of this chapter, I can now explain what I meant: in saying "Is God Okay?" I was asking "Is the God of Abraham analogous to the word 'okay,' in the sense of being an idea whose worldwide spread owes to a set of circumstances that could never have been predicted, all by blind happenstance, while other similar ideas (other gods, other words) have dropped by the wayside?"

I believe so. The analogy runs deep. In the same way that the fortuitous adoption of "o.k." by a presidential campaign was an invaluable aid to its spread, the fortuitous conversion to Christianity of a single particular man -- Constantine, emperor of the Roman Empire -- gave a phenomenal boost to the spread of the God of Abraham. My position is that, if a word that couldn't possibly be taken as an abbreviation for "all correct," except for someone claiming it was, can spread, with that meaning, to everyday use in dozens of languages spoken by billions of people around the world, replacing words previously used, then in just that same way the belief in a particular god can spread around the world, because of an accidental confluence of circumstances, without the god actually existing any more than all of the replaced and forgotten gods do.