In this week's online BBC News magazine, Alan Metcalf reprises his recent book OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word. I haven't read the book, but Prof. Metcalf is an established scholar as well as a successful popularist, and I have every reason to think that the book is well worth reading. Still, I have a little semantic problem with the article.
The article mostly discusses the history of OK, saying that its widespread circulation probably dates back to an unfunny joke in an 1839 article in the Boston Morning Post. Fair enough: he and the OED agree on this point. Then he goes on:
But what makes OK so useful that we incorporate it into so many conversations?
It's not that it was needed to "fill a gap" in any language. Before 1839, English speakers had "yes", "good", "fine", "excellent", "satisfactory", and "all right".
What OK provided that the others did not was neutrality, a way to affirm or to express agreement without having to offer an opinion.
Consider this dialogue: "Let's meet again this afternoon."
I beg to differ. Consider instead this dialogue:
1) ME: Prof. Metcalf is wearing a nice red tie. YOU: OK.
I suggest that OK expresses acceptance and acknowledgement, e.g. of a proposal. And Prof. Metcalf is surely right that OK is neutral when it does this. Sure thing, lover boy!, for example, would be a non-neutral way of accepting an offer of help with a Linguistics 101 assignment. The thing is, acceptance and acknowledgement are not agreement, nor even exactly affirmation. So I cannot fully agree with or affirm Prof. Metcalf's analysis.
I'll now give some example dialogues to illustrate my claim that OK (unlike yes) does not express agreement, and then I'll come back to the neutrality issue. The examples all involve speech acts other than assertions, speech acts that we might imagine OK or yes being used to respond to. First, here's a pair of dialogues that begin with a (biased) question. Note that in dialogue (2) the response OK! is weird, which I've notated with a "#", whereas in (3) the response Yes! is natural. That's because the question demands agreement, and OK is not a straightforward way of agreeing.
2) # ME: Isn't he smart? YOU: OK!
3) ME: Isn't he smart? YOU: Yes!
Examples (4) and (5) start with me making a promise. Promises are not ways of asserting things but of committing to doing things. In this case OK is a natural way of acknowledging the promise and of accepting that a commitment has been made. On the other hand Yes, as in (5) is odd, because it really doesn't make much sense for you to agree with my commitment: I've made the commitment whether you like it or not.
4) ME: I promise to give it back. YOU: OK.
5) #ME: I promise to give it back. YOU: Yes.
Finally, (6) and (7) are dialogues beginning with strong imperatives. You can accept my uncouth demand by meekly saying OK, or even OK, OK. But since there isn't anything you can reasonably agree with, Yes (or Yes, yes) is quite unnatural.
6) ME: Get the fuck out of my stuff!!! YOU: OK, OK.
7) # ME: Get the fuck out of my stuff!!! YOU: Yes, yes.
Surely my claim that OK doesn't express agreement is too strong? Here's a fine distinction. OK is certainly used to signal agreement, but does not express agreement. And even when OK signals agreement, it signals weak agreement. We're back to the neutrality issue. In (1), above, for example, the OK is particularly weak… as if followed by an implicit if you say so or whatever, and perhaps uttered with a resigned glance into the space about a yard above and to the right of the speaker's right shoulder.
Why weak? For the simple reason that OK doesn't (or at least didn't in the past) directly express agreement. Rather it expresses acceptance and acknowledgement. When an assertion is made, we are understood to tacitly agree to it if (i) it is clear that we have understood it, (ii) we were in a position to object, and (iii) we failed to object. Now, when I use an entire speech turn to say OK, it will be made clear that all of conditions (i-iii) hold, and so I am seen to tacitly agree to what has been said. But I have not explicitly agreed. The agreement is seen as weak for just this reason. I could have said Yes!, Absolutely!, Too true!, Indeed! or Right!, but I didn't. I merely acknowledged that I'd understood, or perhaps accepted your right to say it, with weak agreement following by pragmatic reasoning. (I'm reminded of the pragmatics of citation: when you cite someone, you acknowledge them, and you will be taken to have expressed some sort of approval if you do not disavow the cited work explicitly. But if you don't say that you agree, then you haven't.)
What we have, then, is an expression that neutrally expresses acceptance and acknowledgment, and which contra what Allan Metcalf says in the BBC piece, does not express agreement directly, though it can be used indirectly to signal weak agreement. That sound OK?