In OK, Michelle McSweeney charts the history of the word ‘OK,’ from its origins in the steam-powered printing press through inventions like the telegraph and telephone and into the digital age. McSweeney illustrates how the linguistic creativity accompanying technological change enabled this versatile word to transition through new modes of communication, writes Chris Featherman.
OK. Michelle McSweeney. Bloomsbury Academic. 2023.
In its March 2023 update, the Oxford English Dictionary reported it had added deepfake, along with some 700 other new words, phrases, and senses, to its collection of over 600,000 entries. Like many of the OED’s recent additions, deepfake’s etymology links to technology—which isn’t surprising. While we rightly hail Shakespeare for coining hundreds of new words (and Milton for even more), little has spurred linguistic innovation like technological change.
Little has spurred linguistic innovation like technological change
Yet, few neologisms last. As Ralph Keynes writes in The Hidden History of Coined Words, ‘When it comes to neologisms, supply far outstrips demand. Coined words are like swarms of salmon eggs: few hatch, fewer mature, and only a handful make it upstream. Even those that do survive seldom endure.’ Deepfake, for now, and rather sadly, seems here to stay. But who knows when tweeting, which entered the OED in 2013, will go the way of yarking?
Obsolescence, though, seems an unlikely fate for OK, whose path from neologism to ubiquity linguist and data scientist Michelle McSweeney traces in her aptly titled book OK. A linguistic Swiss Army knife—adjective, adverb, discourse marker—OK has endured and pervaded English (and numerous other languages as a loan word) not just because of its versatility, McSweeney argues, but through its links to technology. ‘Every major technological change since the steam-powered rotary printing press of the 1830s to the spread of video calls in the 2020s,’ she claims, ‘has helped shape OK’ (3). And it is in that shaping—and OK’s story more broadly—that we see through McSweeney’s brief but informed book how technology is written into language.
The use of abbreviations in the mid-nineteenth century emerged in response to new communication technologies, including the telegram
Part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lesson series, the book starts with McSweeney documenting OK’s coinage as an instance of nineteenth-century US political language play meaning ‘all correct.’ Its shortening as o.k., rather than a.c., in a newspaper letter to the editor was a bit of creative respelling fashionable at the time, when it was also trendy to sprinkle acronyms into everyday communication much the way some of us nowadays insert LOL and IMO into our texts and tweets. But more than just fashion, McSweeney explains, the use of abbreviations in the mid-nineteenth century emerged in response to new communication technologies, including the telegram, which senders paid for by the word and thus made abbreviations like OK worth every penny.
But it was the invention of the telephone, McSweeney argues, that broadened OK’s functionality beyond an economical expression of confirmation. For its early users, the telephone’s ability to relay not just dots and dashes but a human voice down a wire proved a remarkable qualitative communication upgrade. But it was one that brought with it a novel challenge: how to follow a real-time conversation divorced from the rich information provided by body language and visual cues. Early telephone users, McSweeney explains, therefore needed a means of managing turn-taking, a signal that one speaking turn had finished or would continue. OK, both easy to say and ultra-efficient, was an ideal candidate, and it became an indispensable telephone backchannel, a brief utterance or interjection that the listener offers the speaker to show they understand, agree, empathise—or at least have not hung up or fallen asleep.
OK quickly passed from fashionable to mainstream and started showing up everywhere, from government reports and industry safety guidelines to advertising and media discourse
This expansion of OK’s functionality, McSweeney shows, from convenient shorthand to phatic expression (communication that helps maintain social relationships) meant that, by 1900, OK had become lexicalised, that is, a stable part of the American English vocabulary. But more than just versatile, OK’s associations with cutting-edge technologies also made it hip, ‘a symbol,’ McSweeney argues, ‘of modernity and sophistication’ (60). Yet, like Facebook in its heyday, OK quickly passed from fashionable to mainstream and started showing up everywhere, from government reports and industry safety guidelines to advertising and media discourse. The latter in particular, McSweeney explains, fueled OK’s global spread. In the aftermath of the Second World War, with English crowned the global lingua franca and television disseminating American culture and consumerism wherever it could, using OK signaled a kind of liberalness—even an Americanness—especially for those at the Cold War’s fault lines.
In our own time, few technologies have been as socially transformative as the internet, and OK, McSweeney tells us, has also evolved along its rhizomes. Like the telegraph and telephone before them, the advent of internet-based communications necessitated new ways of signaling comprehension in a quick, concise way. Again, OK’s efficiency fit the bill. But as email programmes, for instance, improved in the early aughts and the language of email became more conversational, the need for OK’s economy gave way to its informality. In one of the book’s most intriguing examples, McSweeney analyses the use of OK in a publicly available corpus of emails sent by employees at Enron, the former US energy company that collapsed in 2001 after a financial scandal. While her analysis shows that in the corpus’ 600,000 emails OK is not most frequent (please is), it is nevertheless ubiquitous—above all because its phatic function suits email (like most social media discourse) so well: ‘socially rich,’ ‘but informationally empty’ (56).
‘Socially rich,’ ‘but informationally empty’
Analyses like this substantiate McSweeney’s claim that OK’s historical development is ‘symbolic of the ways that language and technologies interact’ (4). Yet, in exploring that dynamic McSweeney at times lets her tale tip towards techno-determinism and fails to account for how OK indexes the neoliberal discourses of technology and efficiency. Similarly, while she rightly links, in Chapter 7, OK’s staying power to cultural globalisation, her sketch of English’s rise to lingua franca status sidesteps the issue of cultural imperialism and perhaps unwittingly reinforces top-down narratives of English’s global spread.
But in the book’s concluding chapters, McSweeney returns to the themes of agency and creativity in linguistic innovation. She shows, for example, how early instant messenger users, much like OK’s puckish nineteenth-century coiner, playfully re-spelled OK in their chats to convey tone and personality. She also traces some of the ideologies that underpin OK’s global spread as a gesture—two illustrations of linguistic innovation as a means of exerting power, expressing sociality, and performing identity.
The insuperable human spark for linguistic creativity, one that technology both drives and fosters
Ultimately, through this deft and engaging recounting of OK’s rise to utility, stability, and ubiquity in the English language (and, in many ways, across the globe), McSweeney tells of the insuperable human spark for linguistic creativity, one that technology both drives and fosters. And yet, with the rise of AI-powered writing tools such as Chat-GPT heralding, it seems, a new era of communication, we are right to wonder in what ways that spark might evolve and endure. No doubt new words will continue to appear daily in our languages as OK first did in English one Saturday in 1839. But will these new words all be human, or do the machines want to play, too?
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