Monday, September 19, 2005

Orl Korrect? "OK," says Charles Gordon Greene

Charles Gordon Greene (1804-1886) was the uncle of William Batchelder Greene. Like Greene's father, Nathaniel Greene (1797-1877), he was born in Boscawen, New Hampshire (also the home of Daniel Webster.) After the death of his father in 1812, Charles was raised by his brother Nathaniel, who saw to his education at Bradford Academy, and brought him into the publishing business in Haverill, Massachusetts (where William was born) and Boston. Charles was involved with a number of newspapers in Boston and Philadelphia. [Expect details of the newspaper careers of the brothers in a later post.]

According to Appleton's Cyclopedia :
"Mr. Greene was on several occasions a Democratic candidate for office, at one time a member of the state legislature, and naval officer of the port of Boston for two terms, having been appointed in 1853 by Franklin Pierce, and reappointed by James Buchanan in 1857."

As a partisan Democratic journalist, Greene was at times inclined to a rough-and-tumble, not entirely "correct" rhetoric and even to the occasional fabrication. Indeed, while his brother Nathaniel contributed hundreds of poems to various papers and translated European literature, Charles obviously prided himself on a certain solid, straightforward nature. Unsurprisingly, of the works of Melville, he liked Redburn and Typee. Mardi he disliked to the point of "disgust," and of White-Jacket he wrote:

For it is unfortunately true, that because a man produces a spirited and beautiful romance like Typee, or an autobiography like Redburn, running over with a Defoe naturalness and verisimilitude, it does not follow that he is competent to discuss the fitness or unfitness of the "Articles of War," the propriety or impropriety of "Flogging in the Navy," or the whole system of government and ceremonials of our "National Marine." The discussion of these great practical subjects requires practical men -- men of character, wisdom and experience -- not men of theories, fancies, and enthusiasm....
Pierre inspired him to the following:
Comment upon the [plot] is needless. But even this string of nonsense is equalled by the nonsense that is strung upon it, in the way of crazy sentiment and exaggerated passion. What the book means, we know not. To save it from almost utter worthlessness, it must be called a prose poem, and even then, it might be supposed to emanate from a lunatic hospital rather than from the quiet retreats of Berkshire. We say it with grief -- it is too bad for Mr. Melville to abuse his really fine talents as he does. A hundred times better if he kept them in a napkin all his natural life. A thousand times better, had he dropped authorship with Typee. He would then have been known as the writer of one of the pleasantest books of its class in the English language. As it is, he has produced more and sadder trash than any other man of undoubted ability among us, and the most provoking fact is, that in his bushels of chaff, the "two grains of wheat" are clearly discernable. --Charles Gordon Greene, in Boston Post, August 4 1852

The Melville site, alas, lacks a review of The White Whale (Moby Dick), but the review of Pierre dismisses it in passing. In Greene's defense, of course, most of his contemporaries agreed about the merits of Melville's more difficult works.

In any event, it is not through his literary criticism or his political work that Charles Gordon Greene achieved his most lasting legacy. Instead, it was born in a jokey editorial about, of all things, the ringing of dinner bells--and it's possible abolition--where Greene made the first known use of the slang term "OK."

The earliest example of O.K. . . . is from the Boston 'Morning Post' of March 23, 1839. It appears in connection with a note by the paper's editor, Charles Gordon Greene, about a visit to New York of some members of the local Anti-Bell-Ringing Society. (The A.B.R.S., as it was usually known, was itself something of a joke, having been formed the previous year to oppose -- its name to the contrary -- an ordinance of the Boston Common Council against ringing dinner bells.) In an aside, Mr. Greene suggested that if the Bostonians were to return home via Providence, they might be greeted by one of his rivals, the editor of that city's 'Journal,' who 'would have the 'contribution box,' et ceteras, o.k. -- all correct -- and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.'.Thus, it appears that O.K. was invented, possibly by Greene, as an abbreviation of the jocular 'Oll' or perhaps 'Orl korrect,' meaning "All right.' This explanation would seem farfetched, except for Read's finding that it dovetails with such coinages of the period as O.W. for 'All Right,' as though spelled 'Oll Wright' (this appeared in the Boston 'Morning Post' in 1838, the year before O.K.'s debut); K.G. for 'No Good'; and K.Y. for 'No Yuse.'."

As a poster reported, in one thread where this explanation appeared, the joke was "that neither the O nor the K was correct."

Add one more real character to the Greene family tree.

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