When all is well and well is all

Slate's Juliet Lapidos recently reviewed a new book by Allan Metcalf on the story of OK ("America's Greatest Word").  Key graf:

The only etymology with hard evidence behind it, he says, is that OK began as a joke—a joke so bad, so boring, that I won't cover it in detail. Briefly: In the spring of 1839, the Boston Post ran an article tweaking the Providence Daily Journal, which included the phrase "OK—all correct." Get it? OK started as an intentionally misspelled abbreviation of all correct (oll korrect). It sprang, more generally, from an 1830s fad for abbreviations, like NG for no good and OW for oll wright or all right.

I've heard about this silliness before, and in fact referred to it whenever someone around me bemoaned the spelling of, say, "Gorillaz" or  "Flickr." The current trend in spelling hijinx doesn't portend the end of civilization or reflect a decline in education, but rather, continues a longstanding English tradition. 

But the part about the review that I really liked focused on the inscrutability of "OK" (more below):

Metcalf gives less weight to the relativist OK, or the "noncommittal"OK, as he calls it, which "affirms without evaluating." The word's passivity, to Metcalf, is merely one of its many aspects, rather than an encapsulation of a third, less glamorous American philosophy: the shrug....
...Throughout, Metcalf stresses OK's clarity over its opacity. He does not linger on its potential for unintentionally confusing exchanges...
He may be missing the usage of the future, it seems to me, in downplaying the baffling OK, deliberate or otherwise. When used in speech, the word benefits from facial and tonal and social contexts. As our conversations move increasingly into a textual arena, OK gets stripped of these supports. The lone OK in an otherwise blank e-mail tells us only one thing for certain: Our initial message did, in fact, fly successfully through the ether and land in the intended inbox. Whether the OK surrounded by white space is also meant to convey emotion—positive, negative, or something in between—we just can't tell. Whether that uncertainty is positive, negative, or something in between is purely a matter of opinion. On the giving end, I rather like it—in fact, I couldn't do without it.
I only wish Lapidos or Metcalf knew the many ways I get to hear (and use) "OK", in the emergency department.

Because, sure, there's an element of that affirmation-without-evaluation, like when a patient is explaining why she thinks she's coughing ("It's not my smoking -- it's that my grandson was sick last week" -- "Okay".)

There's plenty of similar OK deployment when attendings are listening to residents's case presentations unfold. The attending's OK in this situation is used to further the narrative without biasing it; I try to hear the resident's plan emerge without injecting too much approval or disapproval (that comes later).

There's OKs with extra meaning, like the reassuring, professorial kind of OK, when frightened patients can take comfort that their symptoms are familiar to their doctor (it's also heard when interns are being coached through their first central line).

But there's another OK -- one that I didn't see Lapidos or Metcalf mention -- a slightly aggressive, belittling OK. I still hear it occasionally, when explaining a case to a consultant or (thankfully rarely) hearing a resident take a patient history.

The aggressive OK is a perversion of the reassuring OK, really distinguished by just a matter of timing and tone. The aggressive OK means to imply, "Nothing you've said so far has justified why we're having this conversation, so what else have you got to say?"

Call it the professional cousin of the teenager's sarcastic OK. The aggressive OK comes as close to signalling disinterest, boredom, or hostility as convention allows.  Its use is, simply, not OK -- but survives, I think, because this versatile word can disarm us with its commonness.