During one of my recent late night channel-surfing interludes, I came to rest on the classic film Northwest Passage (1940). Spencer Tracy stars in the role of Major Rogers, dashing leader of the ragtag Rogers Rangers, a militia that patrolled the Lake Champlain region in the French and Indian War as it is still known here in our post-colonial outpost. I joined the film part way through and stayed with it. My ear caught several instances of frontiersmen using the word “okay,” and that started me thinking and remembering.
I remembered that some believe okay originated in the 1837 presidential campaign of Martin VanBuren (of Kinderhook, N.Y.), also known as “Old Kinderhook.” Supporters repeated his memorable campaign slogan, “Vote for O.K.” But then I started to wonder, would the much earlier colonial-era Rogers Rangers have used this word “okay” and should I expect Walter Brennan, playing the trusty woodsman and frontier scout, to accept Spencer Tracy’s orders to probe the French lines with a snappy “far out, sir”?
I looked it up, and the answer to the okay question is “probably”; there is a Tennessee court record from 1790 that uses the expression “O.K.” But here’s my next question, and I’m entitled to it, “why am I wondering whether colonials used the expression?” And here I recalled, but only dimly, that John Ciardi, the poet and etymologist, had once wondered the very same thing. And, with a little research, I found that Ciardi asked this same question after his own aimless late night TV rummaging lead him to watch Northwest Passage! This was a kind of double memory, one that turned back on itself.
I admired Ciardi mostly for the graceful way that his books engaged non-specialists, and I followed his “word rambles,” the playful and wide-ranging commentaries on the derivations and usages of words and phrases that appeared regularly on National Public Radio. In sonorous, memorably Boston-accented tones, Ciardi began by telling the audience that he wanted to have a few words with them and then he would launch into a story, usually a series of deeply learned and fascinating digressions that would nevertheless always tie up agreeably and purposefully.
He was funny, too. Ciardi might begin with a modern word and then make a bogus claim that overlooked a century of slang usage. Take the word “glitch” for example. He would note how computer jockeys thought it stood for Gremlins Lurking in the Computer Hardware. Or he’d begin with our modern word “right” and state that it blossomed at the top of an ancient word-tree, and he would show how it had grown from a 10,000 year old Sanskrit root that we still know from the word raj—the word for rule, or king in Hindi. Then he would trace it through the Indo-European languages as rex in Latin, which gave us the words reich in German, derecha in Spanish, regles in French, recht in Scottish, and reign, rule, and ruler in English, words that carry the sense that the right to rule is given to the straight and righteous. The king’s closest advisor would sit in the special place of honor on his right hand. Had we any doubt remaining of the power of etymology to explain how we still hold to ancient assumptions, Ciardi would remind us that the word for left is gauche in French, sinistra in Italian, and sinister in English. Or he’d answer the question of why we say “knock on wood” when we mean to avoid bad luck. It’s one of the phrases that survive from the day when wise men and women looked to nature for the sacred, he explained, and here too, words set him exploring. The Indo-European root for tree, dru, when combined with old English wid, akin to the Latin videre—to see—gives us druid; the one who sees into a tree, that is to say, the insight of one who has a deep sense of the hallowed and tangled forest. People may still prudently knock on wood, Ciardi explained, long after we have forgotten the reason for it.
Challenging play doesn’t require physical contest, of course. Ciardi at play could explore events 10,000 years old without moving from his study and with a time-travel machine no more complicated than the Oxford English Dictionary. We can regard his kind of play as unusual or arcane only if we overlook the practice it takes to pleasurably play the piano, dance a treble jig, shoot a subpar round of golf, or last beyond the 12th move in a game of chess with a Russian friend—all specialized skills that take years to master. We don’t play because it is easy as Benjamin Spock once said; “we play because it is hard.” Play like Ciardi’s depended on a lifetime of preparation and drew from formidable powers of inference, of course, but because he had tuned his ear for language, even the dialog in an old movie could set him playing.