By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 30, 2019

You’ve probably heard the joke about the marriage broker who’s been telling his client all the attractive features of a prospective bride, but then adds, “There’s one more thing I’ve got to tell you: She’s just a little bit pregnant.”

In at least this one respect, being “OK” is like being pregnant. You can’t be “just a little bit OK.” Either you’re OK or you’re not. And, as a matter of fact, this now truly international expression was also derived from a joke – at least it was considered funny at the time. Fashions in humor change almost as capriciously as fashions in dress. Back in the mid-nineteenth century, outrageous misspellings were thought to be the height of humor, and some very successful literary humorists such as Artemis Ward (who was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln) based much of their hilarity on this device.

A common expression at that time was “All Correct.” And, at some point, some contemporary wit garbled this, for laughs, into “Orl Korrect.” This version in itself became so popular and widespread that some other jokester thought of referring to it just by the initials “O.K.” And that is how we came by the expression “OK,” or “okay,” which – though I have no statistics – is probably uttered and heard more frequently in more places by more people than any other two consecutive syllables on this planet.

But, as I indicated, there are no degrees of OK – although perhaps there ought to be. People might then be able to ask each other, “How OK are you today – on a scale of one to ten?” But no, that wouldn’t work – because the whole point of OK is that it’s always number ten. Anything less than OK has to be further down the scale.

And of course, OK isn’t only descriptive. It may also indicate assent: yes, I agree, I approve, I’ll go along with what you want.

Then, as far as spelling is concerned, another joke we’ve completely absorbed is “The Three R’s.”

But these are only two examples of how what starts as a joke can become a part of our language, and people forget where it came from. Another of my personal favorites is “Waiting for the other shoe to drop.” I’m not sure how old the joke is, but it’s about a man staying in a hotel, who is warned by the clerk to be quiet at night, because the person in the room below is a very light sleeper. The man is getting ready for bed, takes off a shoe, and carelessly drops it on the floor. Only then does he remember what he’s been told – so after taking off the second shoe, he sets it down very gently, and goes to bed and to sleep. An hour later, he’s woken by a knocking at his door. It’s the man from the room below, pleading, “Would you please drop that other shoe!”

Somehow “waiting for the other shoe to drop” fits so many situations so perfectly that I can’t think how people of earlier days expressed the same idea.

Among other words and expressions which began as jokes, one, which I’ve discussed previously, is the term “shrink” for a psychiatrist. Another would require a Latin scholar to appreciate today: When the “bicycle built for two” first appeared in the 1890s, it was called a “tandem.” This was really a double joke, because “tandem” in Latin translates as “at length,” but only in the sense of “at last,” or “finally.”

And of course, we have “disc jockey” and “soap opera,” both mildly ridiculing terms which somehow, in the course of time, came to be accepted as quite legitimate. Similarly, a “western”-type movie came to be called a “horse opera” – and even that has been mockingly condensed into an “oater.”

Also bestowed in derision was the baseball team name “Dodgers” – once the Brooklyn Dodgers – short for “Trolley-Dodgers.” They were so-called because of Brooklyn’s notoriously dangerous network of streetcars, which really did kill scores of people every year. Horses could avoid people, but, with trolleys, it was the pedestrians who had to dodge.

There’s a long tradition of adopting insults, and flaunting them with pride. I myself, when leading an (ultimately successful) campaign to ban leaf-blowers in Santa Barbara, was, in mockery, publicly presented by an opponent with a gold-painted push-broom, boldly inscribed “BRILLIANT SOLUTION.” I still have that “golden broom,” and will be very proud if I live see it displayed at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.


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