Listen to this story
It’s a bad habit, but when I’m in public I often listen in on other people’s conversations.
Just recently I was sitting on a busy train when, straining my ears to make sense of nearby chatter, I heard a fellow passenger insist on the following insight: that the phrase “OK” was first used by the American military in World War II as shorthand for “zero killed” in reports on the number of U.S. fatalities in a particular military operation. Apparently, given that no American soldiers killed was a positive outcome, the term grew in currency as a more general upbeat affirmative.
All this I found intriguing and was just about to commit the fact to memory — ready to be parceled up and reissued as my own knowledge at some later opportune moment — when I thought it best to confirm the etymology. This I did (in the usual way, does it need to be name-checked?) and found that the commuter’s trivia left a lot to be desired, especially in the area of actual truth.
Thanks to my smartphone, I was fact-finding as the train trundled. Numerous websites attested to various roots but none agreed with the passenger’s version. At the very least, the oldest written references dated back as far as 1840, thus predating WWII by a hundred years.
I was then pleased to locate an entire book dedicated to subject, the impressively titled OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word written by Allan Metcalf (2010). I had no qualms accepting Metcalf’s testament: The phrase first appeared in the Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839, as an abbreviation of “orl korrekt” — a jokey misspelling of “all correct” which was, apparently, much the rage in the US in the 1830s.
This is not the first time that factual reality has stopped me from acquiring some sweet spoonful of trivia. One example looms large: I’ve been told numerous times the seductively simple rule-of-thumb for determining the symbolic meaning of equestrian monuments. It goes like this:
If the horse represented has two legs in the air, then the rider of the horse made his final stand in battle; if the animal has one leg in the air, then the rider merely suffered wounds; and if the horse has all four feet on the ground, the rider survived the battle unscathed. For anyone who is keen on art history (and on impressing others with their knowledge of art history) such an iconographical shortcut is precious indeed.
The rule appears to have come to prominence in America with particular relation to the Battle at Gettysburg of 1863 since amongst the monuments that later populated the location are eight equestrian statues of major generals associated with the skirmish. The handy formula has undoubtedly helped many visitors to Pennsylvania find their bearings amid the outdoor museum. However, just a quick glance at other horsey statues around the world proves that as a general principle, this rubric is patently inadequate, even if those at Gettysburg more or less conform.
My own point of reference here is the equestrian statue of Lady Godiva in Coventry, not far from where I live, whose horse steps forward with a single hoof raised. Since it is unlikely that Lady Godiva ever fought in battle, it is hard to see what the raised foot is referring to. Moreover, little is known about the circumstances of her death, only that it probably occurred sometime between 1066 and 1086. That’s it. Therefore, it seems clear to me that the sculptor, Sir William Reid Dick, who completed the work in 1949, could not have been following the Gettysburg model.
Moments of unreliability can occur anywhere, especially in the field of art. A story recently emerged of a couple of teenagers on a visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art who placed a pair of glasses on the gallery floor as a joke, only to find other visitors gathering round and taking photos, mistaking the glasses for an artwork. Stories like this remind us (as if we need reminding) that contemporary art is utterly unreliable. I suspect what is most unreliable is the connoisseurship of the visitor rather than the art, showing in this instance an over-willingness to see art where, alas, art did not exist.
Another example of unreliability seems to haunt me through the years: When I was at art college, I developed a deep fondness for the abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky. One of my favorites of his was the work Yellow-Red-Blue (1925), which is also one of his most well known. For a few years I had a framed print of the painting hanging on my bedroom wall. Like many other Kandinsky works, it is a beautiful miasma of colored blocks and contours, intersecting and overlapping in a heady, frantic tangle. Read from left to right, the order of the colored zones is always yellow-red-blue. That is the simple rule of thumb.
Despite its fame, I have on five separate occasions, in restaurants and hotel lobbies, seen copies of this painting hung upside down. I am seized by a conundrum of pain and excitement, half angered by the coarseness of the mistake and half thrilled by my ability to spot it. Pedantry in such matters is not viewed as much of an asset, so on all five occasions I kept the error to myself.
Anyway, such accidents are not always without benefit. I recently learned that the young Kandinsky once saw one of his own paintings propped up on a gallery floor. The work was an early figurative piece, and had, for whatever reason, been turned on its side prior to hanging. For a few moments he didn’t recognize the work, only seeing in the fresh arrangement of colors — the abstract strangeness of the composition — a new inspiration. Kandinsky, sometimes called the Lord of Abstraction, went on to make good use of this unreliable happenstance. Perhaps error is sometimes the mother of invention?