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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

MAY I HAVE A WORD?

I guess it would be okay to say the whole thing started when somebody noticed that according to the criminal code of Boston, ""No person, unless duly licensed by the mayor and aldermen, shall ring, or cause to be rung, any bell, or other instrument, in any street, to give notice of the exercise of any business or calling...under a penalty of not less than three nor more than twenty dollars for each offense.” This bureaucratic banality inspired the formation, on October 26, 1838, of the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society, or in abbreviated form, the ABRS.
It was a joke, of course, an inside multi-layered joke - a joke about a joke about a joke. In this cause the first joke, to the jesters,  was the anit-bell ringing law itself. And the second joke was in the group's name. It wasn't an anti-bell ringing society, it was actually a pro-bell ringing society; sort of the way “Working Class Americans for Fair Taxes" aren't any of those things either. And the third joke was that there wasn't anybody actually in the anti-bell ringing society.
See, during the 1830's there were 43 newspapers in the city of Boston, from the weekly Advertiser to the Daily Wig. As you can imagine, the competition was rather severe.  Each of their publishers had an axe to grind, from conspiracy theories ( the Anti-Masonic Christian Herald) to benevolent rich people (the National Philanthropist), or they carved out special interest niches (the New England Farmer). But the capitalist imperative eventually drove all the successful newspapers to copy each other, just as reality television does today. A by-product of this leveling process was an intellectual rebellion by those who consumed the same papers but needed to convince their fellow readers that they were smarter than the average yokels who read this drivel. Karl Marx referred to this as the "Club Effect", when he said, "I have a mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it." Or was that Groucho Marx?  Anyway...
There were many inside-joke clubs at the time in Boston, like the Association of Presidents of Bankrupt Insurance Companies, or the Mammoth Cod Association, or the Flouring Committee. Most of these existed merely to allow their wise-acre creators to announce non-existent meetings for these non-existent clubs in the newspapers. Some of them, like the Anti-Bell Ringing Society went so far as to announce platitudinous field trips, which nobody actually showed up for because there was actually no body in the clubs. Everybody who got the joke was supposed to read these announcements and just laugh, not pack their bags.
In November of 1838 the ABRS went so far as to file suit in court to overturn the anti-bell ringing ordinance. And although they never paid the filing fee (and their case was never on the docket) the founders, whoever they or he was, kept the joke going by arguing with their non-existent critics that they had as much right to gather together as "any other moral and benevolent societies in existence". Did I mention their critics were also non-existent?  According to the stream of press releases, issued by the Lord High Chancellor of the ABRS, the group had elected a "Professor of Bell-ecution", and a “Benign Reliever of the Bell-y-ache”. And at their first mythical anniversary dinner party they (myth-ically) had toasted the ladies as, “the only belles the members of this society will ever ring to.”  In mid-March of 1839 they even took a mythical train trip to New York City. The term "ad nasseum" leaps to mind. Are you LOL yet?
Taking their cue from these latter day “You Tube-erites” the newspaper columnists launched their own abbreviated inside-jokes, abbreviated because they relied on initialism, also known as acronyms. In this alternative inside joke universe the initials KY were substituted for “know yuse”, which had already been substituted for “no use”. Ah, if this had been the late 1830's you and I would have been ROTFL right now. Parenthetically, this buffoonery was intensified by including an explanation of the ersatz slang gag in parentheses immediately following the acronym, as it “N.C. ('nuff said), when the writer might have simply written “enough said” instead, or “GTT (gone to Texas), or PDQ (pretty d-mn quick) and SP (small potatoes) or AWALY (Are we all laughing yet?).
e.g.; in June of 1838 the Boston Morning Post (one of the participating newspapers) carried the following note: "Eliot Brown, Esq., Secretary of the Boston Young Men's Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Indians, F.A.H. (fell at Hoboken, N.J.) on Saturday last at 4 o'clock, p.m. in a duel W.O.O.O.F.C. (with one of our first citizens.) What measures will be taken by the Society in consequence of this heart rending event, R.T.B.S. (remains to be seen)."  Nobody was actually shot, except of course the writer who was shooting his mouth off, but i.e,. removed from their environment these abbreviated jokes shriveled up and just died. But while they were in vogue, they reduced the world to a 18th century MMORPG (Massive Multi- player Online Role Playing Game). Ah, LOL et al. for the initiated. All others must pay cash.
On March 23, 1839 the Post (again) carried a follow-up story on page two, concerning that mythical field trip the ABRS did not take to New York City. The editor of the Providence, Rhode Island "Mercury" had  noticed that on the day announced, nobody from the ABRS had been on the Boston to New York train, and noted so in his newspaper. The Boston Sophisticates were in stitches. Clearly the poor philistine from Providence was not in on the joke. But the Post's columnist, Mr. Charles Gordon Greene, continued the gag by responding as follows: "We said not a word about our deputation passing "through the city" of Providence.—We said our brethren were going to New York... and they did go... The "Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells," is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have his "contribution box," et ceteras, o.k. (all correct) —and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward."
Okay, ignoring Mr. Greenes' convoluted sentence structure for now, the corks were flying because (mythical) champagne bottles had been opened by the (mythical) band of raucous anti-bell ringing acolytes, in their mythical celebration. And reading all this, the non-mythical readers of the Post were by now having a jolly good time at the expense of the rubes from Providence. And I suspect they were having such a good time that they failed to notice the momentous event which had just occurred - the birth of a new word.
Not the conception, certainly, which may have occurred orally a hundred years before, maybe a thousand years before. But this was the moment of birth, March 23, 1839, the first appearance in print that has so far been uncovered of the word "Okay" or OK. The word was so new, is still so new even today, that its spelling has yet to be standardized. And it all happened because the humorists in Boston had become cannibalistic, consuming their own jokes.
But OK would probably have died aborning (or a-boring) had not it been saved by the Presidential election of 1840, which pitted the incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren against the Wig, William Henry Harrison. You might think the joke here was that Harrison would win the election but died just a month after his interminable inaugural address. But it turns out the real joke was on the loser, Van Buren, who took only 7 states, to Harrison's 19. But that's OK, because Van Buren's political loss was a big win for theoretical lexicography.
You see, the Democrat's campaign manager, Amos Kendall, decided it would be a good idea to emphasise his man's roots. Van Buren had been born in the tiny village of Kinderhook, New York, a bastion of Dutch culture in a rising sea of Englishmen, making their man an ethnic minority. And believing this was just the image the American people were looking for in a politician, Kendall decided to give him the nickname of "Old Kinderhook", calling attention to both his age and his different-nesss at the same time. And he tied it all together with that trendy new word from Boston.  They even had campaign buttons printed up reading simply "OK", and started OK clubs, urging supporters to say, "I'm voting for OK".
In response the Wigs insisted that OK actually stood for "Out of cash" or "Out of credit", revealing once again the endless wealth politicians can mine out of America's mountains of economic insecurity. One Wig columnist described them as " “frightful letters … Those who wear them should bear in mind that it will require their most strenuous exertions … to make all things O.K.”
The fledgling word derivative then received a further boost from new technology, when the Morse telegraph was introduced in 1844. It took far less finger pressing to tap out the word "OK" (you could ignore the "o" and the "K" was just "dash - dot - dash") than to tap out the words "All Correct". OK was far easier to spell, too. In fact, OK is the strongest remaining artifact of telegraphy in our culture, the equivalent of a "Record Player" in the era of compact discs, and compact discs in the era of music downloads.
Twenty years later the young six foot five inch James Pyle left his family home in Nova Scotia to seek his fortune in New York City. He opened a factory in Greenwich Village, where he repackaged sodium carbonate powder as "Pyle's OK Pearline Soap". Mr.Pyle's genius was his discovery that the only difference between soaps was the advertising. All his advertisements framed traditional images of children and dogs and kitties, with that hip new word, OK. He plastered Manhattan from the Battery to the Bronx with the word "OK" until the denizens were seeing it in their sleep. James made a literal fortune, and in 1914 his company was bought out by Proctor and Gamble, which renamed the product "Ivory Soap" and dropped the OK. But by now the adolescent word was strong enough to stand on its own two letters.
And just as the telegraph was being pushed to extinction by the telephone, the lucky "OK" was given yet another new boost on May 5, 1961. Commander Alan B. Shepard, sitting atop a Redstone rocket, assured his controllers that, "Everything is A-OK." And because the American space program performed in public, and the entire world was listening with rapt fascination, this anachronistic sliver of American English slang, a 130 year old inside joke amongst Boston sophists,  instantly became the first phrase of modern international slang.
Everything was indeed "OK." People the world over, who do not speak or usually hear English, know and use OK. It is a borrowed word, which is a nice way of saying it may be the only English word for which the Shakespeare family is does not collect royalties.
Okay?
- 30-

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