The Most Honest Word You'll Hear in Business

How's the economy? OK. The market? OK. Your portfolio? Oh, it's OK, I guess.

"These two simple letters .. anchor our agreements, confirm our understandings, and choreograph the dance of everyday life," writes Allan Metcalf in "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word," recently published by Oxford University Press Inc.

Metcalf was my journalism professor at MacMurray College, a private liberal arts school in Jacksonville, Ill., where I was an OK student. My favorite words had twice as many letters as OK, and Metcalf would say they were not OK to put in the school newspaper.

OK was born to Boston editors in 1839 who thought it was funny to misspell the editing mark, "all correct," as "oll korrect" and abbreviate it as OK, Metcalf writes.

Why this seemed funny escapes me, but maybe it's because they didn't have stories about Anthony Wiener or Charlie Sheen to edit.

The word might have been lost as a newspaperman's inside joke, but in 1840 President Martin Van Buren plied it in his campaign for a second term. Then came the telegraph, with dots and dashes that meant newfound appreciation for any two-letter word.

"OK was put to electronic use almost as soon as electronic use .. was born," Metcalf writes. "The telegraph, the railroad and OK .. By midcentury .. the three were permanently intertwined."

As American business hummed along wires and rails, everything was OK. Q: How's the cotton harvest? A: OK.

"If it weren't for business, we would not in any way have it," Metcalf said of the term.

Flash forward to 1967, and OK became a philosophy with publication of the book on transactional analysis, "I'm OK, You're OK."

Flash forward to this century and it's one of the handiest words in the texting lexicon for teenagers and grandparents alike.

The word is practically invisible. No one much thinks about it. But Metcalf notes it's been adopted in many other languages and argues it's become the most widely spoken and typed word on the planet.

And rarely does anyone challenge the assertion that something is OK. Rarely does anyone care how it's spelled: O.K., ok, okay, okey-dokey or even okeley dokeley as Ned Flanders from The Simpsons puts it.

It's one of the best words for headlines, as in "FDA OKs Viagra," or maybe one day, "Congress OKs Higher Debt Ceiling."

If you call a broker to place an order, the response is often, OK. But despite its ubiquitous use in business, OK has proven too honest of a term to be used effectively in marketing.

One of the first powdered soaps manufactured in the U.S. was called "James Pyle's O.K. Soap."

"OK may be good enough when the implication is that competitors are not," Metcalf explains.

In the 1960s and 1970s Chevy dealers used tags declaring, "This is an OK used car." This aimed to alleviate worries of serious problems. Perhaps it was also the most honest-sounding word a used car salesman could say.

"You can use OK for a Chevrolet," Metcalf said, "but you'd never even think of using it for a Cadillac."

American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer, acquired the U.S. edition of OK! in June.

The magazine's U.K. publisher launched it in the U.S. in 2005, relying heavily upon its exclamation point for excitement. But the publication suffered hefty losses.

OK makes up the middle letters in "Coke." This led to the test marketing of "OK Soda" in the early 1990s with claims such as, "There's no real secret to feeling OK," and "What's the point of OK? Well, what's the point of anything?"

No surprise, OK Soda fizzled. Perhaps the book will do better. So far, so good.

New York Times' "On Language" Columnist Ben Zimmer called it "A compelling biography of a single word." And Erin McKean of says it's "More than "just OK.'"

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at or