Monday, April 7, 2008

okay, here's a random fact

Go to any "ethnic" restaurant in your area and sit within earshot of the kitchen. The staff will typically chat back and forth and/or yell instructions in their native language. It can be Chinese, Thai, Spanish, Indian, Arabic, whatever. Spend some time listening and I guarantee that you will hear the word "okay" interspersed here and there.

The other day, Mike and I went to a nearby Chinese buffet. They have the most fantastic lo mein and garlic green beans, plus I am a sucker for those soft serve machines - I like my vanilla with litchi fruits. Sitting at a table behind us was a Latino couple, speaking Spanish. The husband went up to one of the people in charge of restocking the food and asked,"Spaghetti, okay?" while pointing to the empty pan. The restaurant employee, whose first language was clearly also non-English, answered, "Okay," and went to go make some more lo mein. Two people, three languages and no one was misunderstood.

"Okay" - sometimes a verb, sometimes a noun - is always understood, no matter the context or inflection. A tiny word that can transcend race and language barriers, travel around the world and still retain its meaning? Pretty extraordinary...and altogether beautiful in its simplicity and universality.

I love words. More specifically, I love the history of words came to be, how they travel throughout time, how they change, how they change us. Etymology. And, not surprisingly, powerful little "okay", the worldwide verbal nod, has a quirky past.


dneylon said...

When I was stationed in Germany I was always amused at how much 'okay' was used by the locals.

Chas S. Clifton said...

"only survivor of a slang fad in Boston and New York c.1838-9"

If true, that was a "fad" that persisted in the printing and newspaper industries at least through the 1980s,although digital page layout may have killed it.

When I was a young reporter in the early 1980s, page paste-ups waiting photos, for example, were routinely marked "Pix TK," which stood for "pictures to come."

Ask an old printer and you might hear of some more.

140 years -- some fad!

Geoff said...

If I recall my history classes correctly, it's probably the most catchy slogan to incorporate into the language. Thanks Mr. "Old Kinderhook" Van Buren.

Nicki said...

Oh, Breda, darling! TAG!

You're it!

phlegmfatale said...

In my favorite Cantonese eatery in Dallas recently, I heard someone with a speech impediment in Chinese. I noticed something odd about her speech pattern, and I finally realized she was stuttering. Kind of cool, actually. Yeah, Okay is a cool universal word.

farmist said...

We were in a chain Italian eatery recently where we could hear/see the kitchen. Most of what we heard was Spanglish.

Hunter said...

OED word-of-the-day subscriber.
Bill Buckley photo on the bulletin board by the desk.
Three dictionaries on the shelf by the desk.