Asturias Days

Sleeping Dogs

By Clellan Coe | November 22, 2023
Flickr/Kazuya Fujii
Flickr/Kazuya Fujii

Okay is a word that frequently appears in the English class books I use, where it’s usually written “O.K.” For the younger students, I have to explain the meaning. “It’s like yes,” I tell them. I also have to explain how to pronounce it because the students usually want to say “oak.” I can still picture, after four years, one particular child absorbing the meaning. She cocked her head, assumed an inquisitive expression, and then looked up to ask if “okay” means vale. I nodded. Vale, like “okay,” signals agreement. “Da te prisa!” someone might tell you, “Hurry up!” Your answer of “Vale vale!” reassures your companion, especially when you do speed up. It’s perfectly fine to use “okay,” I tell adult students, who wonder how informal the word is. But is “okay” really okay? In Marissa Silver’s story “Tiny, Meaningless Things,” the point-of-view character, a 73-year-old woman named Evelyn, gives some advice to a young boy, a neighbor who visits her regularly. “Do you understand?” she asks. “Yes” or “no” is what she expects, but he replies, “O.K.” She is not satisfied. “What a maddening non-answer,” she thinks.

But it is not a non-answer. According to the Collins Dictionary, “okay” in any of its various spellings means that you concur with something, just as “okey doke,” “all right,” “agreed,” and “righto” also do. It can be a substitute for “yes.” When my children were small, I often used “okay” to cap a reminder to them, saying, for example, “Homework before play. Okay?” Or, “Fifteen minutes until bedtime. Okay?” My mother and I couldn’t agree on the significance of my okay. She invariably heard it as my asking for the boys’ acceptance. No, I said, not at all. I wanted to know that they’d heard and understood. “Okay,” the answer that maddened Evelyn, was exactly what I was after.

Had we turned to the dictionary, it would have told us that okay at the end of a sentence is used to invite agreement, approval, or confirmation. So we were both right in principle. In practice though? Did the boys interpret my question as entitling them to choose what commands to obey, as my mother believed, or did they learn that signaling that they’d heard the question was an appropriate response to being addressed, as I thought? We might have judged from the boys’ response, but we’d have had trouble agreeing how to interpret that, too. “Yes, they did as they were told, but not with any alacrity.” “But they did do it.”

No rules to enforce these days, no rod to spare, no children to spoil. With nothing now at stake, my mother and I might dispassionately address the way the word functions and what exactly it means to end a sentence with “okay.” Or to start one. But battles leave dust in the air. Bring up our disagreement over the word, and I remember my mother’s determination to make her point. She will recall my resistance. Or worse, my stubborn rejection, my blindness, just as I recall her unreasonable insistence. Dust takes a long time to settle. Let’s not stir things up. Let sleeping dogs lie. I think we both agree on that. It’s hard though, isn’t it, to tiptoe away? Yes, because you do want not only to make an announcement, offer a suggestion, or give some advice, but also to know you’ve been heard. “O.K.,” the little boy answers Evelyn. Not the affirmation she wanted. But at least he heard her. A good thing. Or is it the first step on the march to having the last word?

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