Glossary: If It's OK by You, I Love It
Sutcliffe, Thomas, The Independent (London, England)
ACCORDING to the Coca-Cola company, the phrase OK is the most widely recognised in the world. The same research puts the name Coca-Cola in second spot, so you will have to make your own judgements about the validity1 of the finding. They believe it, anyway, and are now making a cunning bid for the number one spot by appropriating the phrase for a new soft drink, aimed especially at teenagers and young adults.
OK soda ( Coca-Cola) is probably as gassy and unremarkable as its predecessors but the marketing campaign is undoubtedly different. "It underpromises," Brian Lanahan, Coke's manager of special projects, told Time magazine. "It doesn't say, `This is the next great thing'. " The can is decorated with studiously glum images of a pale young man: sitting in an industrial landscape; wandering alone down a street.
A message round the lip reads: "OK soda says `Don't be fooled into thinking there has to be a reason for everything'." The company has also set up phone hotlines which teenagers can ring to give their opinions of the product - approving or contemptuous.
OK presumably appealed to Coca-Cola because the letters already occur at the heart of their most valuable brand - Coke (just wait for the cross-promotion). But it's also a phrase which has a useful ambiguity - they want to appeal to the adolescent2 refusal to be impressed, to teenagers' sense of themselves as sardonic and unsurprisable ("Yeah - it's OK, I s'pose").
At the same time they don't want to depress a body of consumers who already have diminished expectations - so one of the campaign slogans runs "OK- ness is the belief that, no matter what, things are going to be OK".
OK is still going strong (including variant spellings, it appeared on our database 5,497 times in the past 12 months, pretty good going for a piece of slang) but it has lost the aggression it displayed during the early Seventies, when it was famously used as an intimidating interrogation at the end of bits of graffiti ("Arsenal Rule OK"). The broadcaster and writer on language, Nigel Rees, dates this particular usage back to IRA graffitists of the Sixties, though one correspondent to the Times claimed that it derived from Scottish razor gangs of the Thirties.
The latter sounds more convincing to me - there is a nasty edge of coercion in it - "Agree with me? Fine, I won't cut you" - and the timing seems more likely, too. Although the phrase appeared in British usage in the last century it was given much wider currency by the arrival of talkies - The Jazz Singer was made in 1927 and Public Enemy, Cagney's big hit, in 1931. It's easy to imagine Glasgow thugs modelling their speech on those early gangster movies. …