- Books, Literature, and Writing
Does the Word “Okay” Belong in Period Dramas?
I think the first time I was ever really bothered by hearing the word “okay” in a period drama was when I watched John Cusack’s The Raven. This is a completely fictional account of Edgar Allan Poe's death, and is therefore set in 1849. During the film, Poe’s romantic interest, Emily Hamilton (played by Alice Eve) is captured by a psychopath and buried alive. She starts to panic the moment she wakes up in her coffin. She screams and moves around as best she can. She then realizes she is not buried too deeply when she hears the voice of her captor threateningly telling her to “shut it”. Emily is stunned and quietly answers “Okay!”.
When I heard this, I was suddenly struck by just how inappropriate it is for the word “okay” to be used in a period drama. I can get over it in fantasy shows such as Merlin and Once Upon a Time - although it does seem rather like a sign of poor writing. But how can a high society woman, in a corset, in a fictional but otherwise believable account of life in the 19th century be saying “okay”?
The other one which really stuck in my head was when Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn said “Okay” during Season 2: Episode 9 of The Tudors. It is right before Anne is arrested. She is in her apartment, dancing with her ladies. She is beautiful; her long hair and gown are flowing as she directs the woman in the dance…and then all of the sudden she says “Okay!” and casually carries on with her instructions!
“Okay” is, without a doubt, a slang word. To this day, English teachers can justifiably tell their students that using “alright” is more appropriate than using “okay”. However, for decades, this word has very much been a part of the way we talk. But did people say it in past centuries?
The Origin of the Word “Okay”
Admittedly, I had to eat some crow when I looked up the history of the word “okay”. I was expecting to find some brief explanation about how it became modern slang, with a history of the word dating back maybe about a century before the present time. Instead, I found out that “okay” is a much older word than I expected.
One of the first things which comes to mind is Tombstone’s O.K. Corral, site of the famous gunfight from 1881. The O.K. on this building, however, does not have anything to do with the word “okay” or with its supposed origins. Instead, the O.K. of the corral stands for “Old Kindersley”, obviously a reference to the site’s owner or to an old company.
Nobody really knows just how old the word is. It is largely agreed that “okay” or “OK” started regularly being used sometime around 1839. At this time, American newspaper editor C.G. Greene purposely misspelled “all correct” as “oll korrect” as part of a long running joke in Boston’s Morning Post. Most history lessons, and for that matter, most dictionaries, will list this anecdote as the origin of the word “okay”. However, there is a multitude of other explanations, some dating back as far at the 10th century. None of these explanations is much clearer than the Oll Korrect story, and range from the ridiculous (the idea that OK developed from an ancient Greek spell against vermin) to the highly believable theory that the word was popularized, at least in modern times, by Scottish immigrants who would say “Och, aye” when responding that everything was peachy.
Despite how old the word actually is, for a long time “okay” was not considered worthy of being including in the dictionary. It may have been as common a word in the 19th century as it is today. However, it was branded a colloquialism or slang and therefore would not have been considered a proper word to be taught in schools or included in newspaper articles and novels. Noah Webster’s first dictionary was published in 1828 and was obviously excused from including “okay” on account of being 11 years older the Oll Korrect story. However, the word was not included in any of the other numerous editions ranging up through 1913. I currently do not have access to any other old editions of Webster’s Dictionary. But I am assuming the word was probably not included anytime before the 1934 edition, at the earliest. At this stage, “okay” would have be further popularized by Hollywood and may finally have been recognized as a legitimate word. “Okay” is now included in all dictionaries, although its definition still lists it as slang.
Does it belong in period dramas?
So, to get back to my original point: Should the word “okay” ever be spoken in period dramas? Technically, Yes. It is an old enough word that it was very likely spoken, and quite often too, in past centuries. However, the word does NOT belong in the two period dramas mentioned above, namely the Anne Boleyn and the Emily Hamilton situations.
“Okay”, from its earliest origins to the present day, has always been a slang word. Therefore, it should only be included in period dramas if it is used in the context of slang or if it is spoken by a character who is poorly educated. Women of Anne Boleyn’s station or of the fictional Emily Hamilton’s education would never have said a word like “okay”. If this was actually printed in the script, the screenwriter should be shot.
But this leads to the main problem I have with this word being in period dramas: In both The Raven and The Tudors it is pretty obvious that the actresses were simply on a roll. They had probably been filming for quite awhile, most likely without a break, and the word just came out by accident because it is part of the vocabulary of modern British and American women. If this is the case, it is the fault of the director and the video editor that these little slip-ups were included in the finished projects. But whatever the cause, it is an error that is inexcusable because it could so easily have been avoided.
DVD of the 2012 film starring John Cusack
© 2013 LastRoseofSummer2