Oggi è l’anniversario dell’espressione «OK», che apparve la prima volta 176 anni fa sul quotidiano Boston Morning Post. Era il 23 marzo del 1839 e, come scrive Allan Metcalf sul blog Lingua Franca, fu quasi uno scherzo: era l’abbreviazione volutamente sbagliata di «all correct».

L’OK è forse una delle espressioni più conosciute in tutto il mondo, a prescindere dalla lingua. Fa notare Metcalf che si potrebbe teoricamente organizzare un picnic mettendosi d’accordo sul da farsi e adoperando solo l’OK come parola — «una specie di Esperanto, solo più facile», scrive ad un certo punto.

Ma l’OK, pur nel suo essere estremamente conciso e riconosciuto da chiunque, ha varie sfaccettature:

I have claimed that this OK is the two-letter essence of an American philosophy of pragmatism, of being concerned above all with getting things done. Something did not need to be perfect to be OK.

But to put it another way, OK introduced a new dividing line between success and failure. If an arrangement or a product is OK, it may be only a partial success, but it’s good enough to get by. Maybe very good, maybe just tolerable. The important thing is that the speaker or writer considers it satisfactory.

We use this OK all the time. If someone slips and falls, we immediately ask, “Are you OK?” And the downed person performs triage with a quick Yes or No—Yes, give me a minute and I’ll recover, or No, call an ambulance.

OK performs this function countless times every day as we coordinate meeting times and places. Like in Shakespeare: “OK, Caesar, see you in the Capitol on the ides”; “OK, Hamlet, I’ll join you on the watchtower at midnight.”

What is OK for one person, of course, may be quite different from what is OK for another. Negotiations are often necessary until everyone is OK with an arrangement. Some may be happy, others reluctant, but the arrangement isn’t definite until everyone has given the OK.

There are different ways of saying and writing OK to indicate different degrees of enthusiasm. I’ve heard from some members of the current millennial generation that texting “K” means grudging approval, “OK” means positive approval, and “okay” implies a degree of enthusiasm. At least those are the signals for some; others surely have different forms of OK for their friends, just as everyone can say OK aloud with varying degrees of enthusiasm.