The British phrase —— rule(s) OK, or okay, preceded by a proper or common noun in the singular or plural, is used to assert the pre-eminence of the specified person(s) or thing(s).
It originated in graffiti, apparently in the early 1970s. The earliest mention that I have found, from The Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire) of 25th May 1971, shows that these particular graffiti constituted only one category of a wider phenomenon:
Police to check aerosol artists
Squads of plain-clothes policemen are to be used by Manchester and Salford police to stop vandals spraying messages and graffiti on walls, buildings, and posters with aerosol paint cans.
Chief Superintendent Jack Griffiths said yesterday: “This is a form of vandalism just as bad as smashing windows and ripping telephone booths. These lads—and I blame the elder teenagers—are going about spraying foot-high obscenities on gable ends.
“They don’t give a thought for the children who might see them, or for the householders who have to spend pounds to have these filthy messages blasted off.”
Mr Griffiths appealed to the public to telephone the police as soon as they saw anyone at work with a spray can. “If you ring 999 we can have officers round in seconds to get the culprits in the act,” he said.
Ten plain-clothes officers will also have a special brief to watch out for the daubers.
The rise in public graffiti has coincided with the introduction of paint-spraying cans from America about six years ago. These cans were designed mainly for touching up cars and cost around 40p. Now, it is possible to buy cans of household paint in aerosol containers for 15 to 20p.
Mr Griffiths said the graffiti fall roughly into the categories of football, politics, and obscenities, sometimes directed against individual people as part as a private feud.
A fourth category, and one which the sociologists find most interesting, are the ones which describe real or imagined gang situations. In Manchester these now tend to be a formula: Wythenshawe rules; Burnage skins rule, often followed inexplicably with the letters O.K., which are thought to demand assent to the legend from the reader.
More realistically there are Stretford End rules O.K. and Kippax St O.K., referring to the popular ends of the two main football grounds.
Mr Joel Richman, a sociologist at Manchester Polytechnic, said yesterday: “We cannot be quite certain what leads people to spray these messages, though it seems likely that it is part of a need to stamp oneself on the environment.
“Ironically, it could be the success of previous police campaigns against vandalism which has led teenagers to take up this other form of expression. At least the situation is nothing like Chicago, where spray cans are used to define very exactly the borders of gang territories.”
According to Dave Robins, writing about “soccer hooliganism” in Growing violence on the terraces, published in The Times (London) on 26th April 1977, the origin of the phrase is:
In the middle sixties away match travellers with the successful Liverpool team, together with their northern, Scots and Irish contemporaries who had migrated south in search of work, brought with them rejuvenated versions of the paraphernalia of sectarian conflict. For example the popular graffiti —— Rules-OK, which originated amongst the Glasgow razor gangs of the thirties.
However, if this were the origin of —— rule(s) OK, one would expect the phrase to be recorded before 1971.
‘Respectable’ persons soon appropriated the phrase. A striking example of reversal of use is from an article by Stanley Reynolds, published in The Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire) of 27th July 1974; the author explains how he strikes “back at the pop music which blasts out at us from everywhere these days”:
I fight back with Radio 3. Any very modern music, Stockhausen, Musique Concrete, that experimental Japanese*, will cut pop stone dead. And even beautiful music, your actual classical stuff has just got so much body to it that it sweeps over the moronic noises of wonderful Radio 1 or the local Beebs and commercial stations.
I park the car. It is outside a pub. There are four teenagers there. Waiting for friends I suppose. Or just loitering with menace. They’ve got a transistor but they don’t have it up to their ear like your proper Trannymen do. One of them is simply holding it and it is playing this ear-shattering stuff. But I’ve got a programme of Russian Orthodox religious music on from the Cathedral in Paris and whatever the Trannymen are playing it can’t match this real soul stuff coming from my radio. And the Russians are doing it with no musical accompaniment. They are just great big Russians with great big masculine voices and you can’t hear anything else on the street but the huge throb of their voices.
The Trannymen look to see where it’s coming from. They are disgusted. The Trannymen have absolutely no tolerance for anything, Japs getting sick in a shower*, Mozart, or the Russian soul, nothing but Sitting In The Back Row At The Movies and Hey Rock ’n Roll. They look at me as if they’d like to slash my tyres. But my music is louder than theirs. I’ve got more power. They sort of shift back and forth. Something new has been added. Like apes seeing the first Cromagnan [sic] Man limp into their neck of the woods. They slink off. I’ve won. I’m also getting to kind of like it, too. This high-class stuff on Radio 3, although primarily I’m only doing it to annoy. Radio 3 aggro. Mozart rule [sic], OK?
* Stanley Reynolds had previously explained in his article:
I had an especially good bit of Japanese music blaring out of the car radio this week. At least I think it was Japanese music. It sounded like a large Japanese getting sick to his stomach in a shower while someone smashed up a piano in the background.
Many puns have been made on the phrase; for example, in an interview with Kenneth Harris, published in The Observer (London) on 23rd March 1980, the British Conservative politician Geoffrey Howe (1926-2015), then Chancellor of the Exchequer, said:
I think if we’re going to be able to make intelligent choices then it is important for government to re-establish the existence of limits within which options have to be exercised. Governments have in recent times tended to diminish their own credibility by not maintaining restraints of that kind.
So the re-establishment of the fact that ‘Rules rule, okay?’ is quite an important part of restoring the self-discipline of a democratic society.
In August 1977, the Limerick Socialist (Limerick Socialist Organisation, Ireland) published the following puns:
For the benefit of our third-level scholars at Limerick National Institute of Higher Education some garffiti [sic] noticed in London: Lunacy drools, O.K., Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle Rules perhaps O.K. and Absolute Zero Rules 0.K.
The following month, the same journal had:
To make up for an unfortunate misprint in those Rules OK items last month, how’s this from the Foreign Office in Whitehall: French Diplomacy Rules Au Quai.
Here, au Quai is short for au Quai d’Orsay; au means at the, Quai d’Orsay is the name of the quay along the left bank of the Seine, Paris, where the French Foreign Office is situated. There have also been puns on French au quai in the generic sense at the quay; for example, this is from The Times (London) of 26th May 1979:
Et tu, Jacques?
A line of South Coast port graffiti reported yesterday: “French dockers rule—au quai?”
This letter to the Editor was published in The Guardian (London and Manchester) on 22nd August 1980:
Sir—Is the latest French outrage against innocent British tourists summed up in the slogan found daubed on walls in the channel ports: French Fishermen Rule Au Quai?—Yours faithfully,
51 Watling Crescent,