So I’m reading Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles (I know, I’m late to this party). The books are great- I love that Kvothe is pretty much a nobody and a non-prophesied hero who gets by on his wits alone. I love Denna, who is a refreshing break from all the beautiful, ever-in-danger female stereotypes one often finds in fantasy literature, who’s feisty without being a perfect character. I like the amount of detail Rothfuss seems to be packing into this world and last but not least, I love the way he punctuates his narrative with stories, people telling stories and listening to them.
What I DON’T like is his use of the word ‘okay’.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘okay’ has various origin-stories, one of which is that O.K. stood for Old Kinderhook, American Democratic President Martin Van Buren’s nickname. Van Buren apparently signed off on documents with the initials ‘O.K.’ and though he lost his re-election bid, the word stuck as a quick way to signify approval on documents. Other theories say that it is the abbreviation of a jocular misspelling of all correct (‘oll korrekt’) or the representation of Choctaw ‘okeh’ (meaning, ‘it is so’). For further information, go here: http://etymonline.com/?term=ok
To cut a long story short, ‘okay’ is a word that arose out of a specific cultural context, be it the Van Buren signing, the unverified Choctaw expression or the misspelling. It is a word that entered into common parlance due to popularization and repeated use, not because it was evolved to signify a particular object, mood, person, animal, thing, whatever. It is deeply rooted in historical factors (like many words and expressions we use today) and quite possibly would never have developed the place it has today were it not for those people (Van Buren, the jocular misspellers) and their idiosyncrasies.
It is, therefore, jarring to hear characters say ‘okay’ in a high fantasy novel, whose world is assumed to have developed on an entirely different footing, historical trajectory, what have you. What are the chances that there existed a president/king/dark lord who signed his documents with the initials ‘O.K’ in any of those fantasy worlds? I ask specifically in the context of high fantasy, not urban or new-age or the in-between space occupied by books like Harry Potter and Philip Pullman or Neil Gaiman’s works. All these books use characters and settings strikingly similar (if not actually based upon) the ‘real world’ depicted in realist novels, the settings and scenarios we are familiar with in our humdrum, Muggle world.
All right, let’s say that somehow, the word has managed to evolve in the fantastical realm in question (in this case, Rothfuss). The second reason why it is so odd to the reader (this reader) is the dissonant note it strikes in the prevailing register of the novel. Let’s face it, most high fantasy in the Western world today is written in the vein or at least the shadow of Tolkien. The author might claim to have never heard of or liked The Lord of the Rings but you can rest assured that some critic is going to come along and compare the newer work to the older one. Tolkien is the grand-daddy of this genre, and all those who have come after him are, whether they know and like it or not, using something of what he has left behind, if only (and this is a pretty big ‘only’) the fact that he can claim to have almost single-handedly made ‘high fantasy’ a respectable, mainstream genre. I’m not saying these authors owe a debt to Tolkien, but the fact remains that Tolkien’s work is recent enough to have clout and make itself known and accepted as the Holy Grail of High Fantasy Writing, and whatever you do, you are GOING to be compared to it. (Also, let’s face it, no one is ever going to come out and call you better than Tolkien, no matter what you do. It’s sad, but you have to live with it, for the next few centuries at least. Come on, no self-respecting critic is going to come out and say that some modern day playwright is better than Shakespeare.)
I let myself get distracted by the Tolkien allusion, but the long and short of it is that thanks to him, high fantasy is not considered ‘high’ if it isn’t written in a certain formal, faux-medieval register, replete with ‘my lieges’ and ‘I know not of what you speaks’. At least, not in my book. Perhaps I’m being narrow minded here, but I think that a lot of readers would agree with me. It’s not slang and informal speech that I’m against, but the context of said speech should be that of the fantasy world, and not our humdrum reality. Expressions such as ‘burn me’ in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time for instance are slangy and frowned upon in courteous circles, occupying the space that is reserved for ‘damn it’ and ‘oh shit’ in our parlance. So if you want to use slang (and you have every right to in a complex world that includes all strata of society and more often than not moves in less dignified circles), use it with context in mind. Make it another facet of the world you’ve built and don’t get lazy and use terms that we use here—you might just stumble across a reader who gets in a snit about it and gets jarred dramatically out of your otherwise finely crafted world.
In short, Hermione is okay, Galadriel is not. Harry might say ‘my exam went okay’, Kvothe should not. It’s lazy, it’s far too casual in a world-inappropriate way, perhaps it’s too American for a genre that we (sadly) look upon as very British, still (like I said, blame Tolkien). And worst of all, it jerks you momentarily out of a wonderfully built and lovingly detailed dimension into a reality which, more often than not, I find myself describing as ‘okay’.
P.S. – LOTR and other high fantasy fanfiction that uses ‘okay’ gets to me for the same reasons. Unless, of course, the author aims to write a humorous or parody piece, in which case if it’s well done (and many are), anything goes, really.