Book Reviews OK by Michelle McSweeney

Book Reviews OK by Michelle McSweeney

IN FINE, Michelle McSweeney describes the history of the word “OK”, from its appearance in the steam-powered printing press to inventions such as the telegraph and telephone, and in the digital age. McSweeney illustrates how the linguistic creativity accompanying technological change has allowed this universal word to move through new modes of communication. writes Chris Featherman.

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FINE. Michelle McSweeney. Academic Bloomsbury. 2023.

In their March 2023 update. Oxford English Dictionary reported he added deepfake, along with approximately 700 other new words, phrases and meanings, to its collection of over 600,000 entries. Like many of OED’s recent additions, deepfake etymology is associated with technology, which is not surprising. While we rightly applaud Shakespeare for creating hundreds of new words (and Milton even more), few things have spurred linguistic innovation more than technological change.

Few things have spurred linguistic innovation more than technological change.

However, few neologisms continue. How Ralph Keynes writes V The hidden history of invented words “When it comes to neologisms, supply far exceeds demand. Words made up are like flocks of salmon eggs: few hatch, few mature, and only a handful float upstream. Even those that survive rarely survive.” deepfake, for now, and rather sadly, it looks like it will stay here. But who knows when tweetentered the OED in 2013, will follow the path grunt?

Obsolescence, however, seems like an unlikely fate for OK, whose journey from neologism to ubiquitous linguist and data scientist Michelle McSweeney traces in her aptly named book FINE. The linguistic swiss army knife — adjective, adverb, discourse marker — OK has taken root and permeated the English language (and many other languages ​​as a loanword) not only because of its versatility, McSweeney argues, but also because of its connection to technology. “Every major technological change, from the steam-powered rotary printing press of the 1830s to the rise of video calls in the 2020s,” she argues, “has helped shape OK” (3). And it is in this form—and the history of OK more broadly—that we see, through McSweeney’s short but informative book, how technologies are written into language.

The use of acronyms in the mid-nineteenth century arose in response to new communication technologies, including the telegram.

Part of Bloomsbury Series of Subject Lessons, the book begins with McSweeney documenting the OK coinage as an example of a nineteenth-century U.S. political language game meaning “everything is right”. Its abbreviation is Finerather than alternating current, in a newspaper letter to the editor, there was a bit of creative writing, fashionable at the time, when it was also fashionable to sprinkle acronyms in everyday communication in the same way that some of us now insert LOL and IMO into our texts and tweets. But more than just fashion, McSweeney explains, the use of abbreviations in the mid-nineteenth century arose in response to new communication technologies, including telegrams, for which senders paid by word, and thus abbreviations like “OK” were worth every penny.

But it was the invention of the telephone, McSweeney argues, that expanded OK’s functionality beyond the economical expression of confirmation. For early adopters, the ability of the telephone to transmit not only dots and dashes, but also the human voice over the wire, proved to be a remarkable qualitative improvement in communications. But that was what brought with it a new challenge: how to follow a conversation in real time, detached from the rich information provided by body language and visual cues. McSweeney Explains Early Phone Users Needed Controls sequence, a signal that one conversational move has ended or will continue. Okay, easy to say, and super-efficient was the perfect candidate, and it became the indispensable telephone backchannel, the short statement or interjection that the listener offers to the speaker to show they understand, agree, empathize—or at least not hang up. got up or fell asleep.

OK quickly moved from the trendy category to the mainstream and began to appear everywhere, from government reports and industry safety guidelines to advertising and media discourse.

This expansion of the functionality of OC, as McSweeney shows, from convenient shorthand to phatic expressions (communication that helps maintain social relationships) meant that by 1900 OC had become lexicalized, that is, a stable part of the American English vocabulary. But beyond its versatility, OK’s association with cutting-edge technology has also made it trendy, “a symbol of modernity and sophistication,” says McSweeney (60). However, much like Facebook in its heyday, OK quickly went from trendy to mainstream and started popping up everywhere from government reports and industry safety guidelines to advertising and media discussions. The latter in particular, explains McSweeney, contributed to the global spread of OK. After World War II, when English became the global lingua franca and television spread American culture and consumerism wherever it could, the use of “OK” signaled a kind of liberality—even Americanism—especially to those on the fault line of the Cold War. war.

In modern times, few technologies have been as socially transformative as the Internet, and well, McSweeney tells us, has also evolved along its rhizome. Like the telegraph and the telephone before them, the advent of Internet communications required new ways of understanding signals quickly and concisely. Again, OK efficiency fits the bill. But as email software, for example, improved in the early 2000s and the language of email became more colloquial, OK’s need for economy gave way to its informality. In one of the book’s most intriguing examples, McSweeney analyzes the use of the word “OK” in public email corpus sent by employees of Enron, a former US energy company that went bankrupt in 2001 following a financial scandal. Although her analysis shows that in a corpus of 600,000 letters, OK is not the most common (Please is), but it is ubiquitous, primarily because its phatic function is suitable for email (e.g., most of the talk on social media) so well: “socially rich”, “but informationally empty” (56).

“Socially rich”, “but informationally empty”

Analysis such as this supports McSweeney’s claim that OK’s historical development is “symbolic of the ways in which language and technology interact” (4). However, in exploring these dynamics, McSweeney sometimes lets his story lean toward techno-determinism and doesn’t take into account how OK indexes. neoliberal discourses technology and efficiency. Similarly, while in chapter 7 she correctly links OK’s persistence to cultural globalization, her essay on the rise of the English language to the status of a lingua franca sidesteps the issue. cultural imperialism and perhaps unwittingly reinforces top-down narratives of the global spread of English.

But in the final chapters of the book, McSweeney returns to the themes of agency and creativity in language innovation. She shows, for example, how early messenger users, much like OK’s mischievous nineteenth-century swindler, playfully rewrote OK in their chats to convey tone and personality. She also traces some of the ideologies behind the global spread of OK as a gesture—two illustrations of language innovation as a means of exercising power, expressing sociality, and realizing identity.

The irresistible human spark of linguistic creativity that technology both stimulates and encourages.

Ultimately, through this deft and engaging tale of OK’s rise to utility, stability and ubiquity in the English language (and, in many ways, the world), McSweeney tells of the irresistible human spark of linguistic creativity, one that is driven by technology. and educates. And yet, with the advent of AI-powered writing tools like Chat-GPT seemingly ushering in a new era of communication, we are right to wonder how this spark can develop and continue. Undoubtedly, new words will appear daily in our languages, as they first appeared in English on Saturday, 1839. But will all these new words be human or will the machines also want to play?

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