The Grammarphobia Blog

The pedigree isn’t copacetic

Q: I came across the word “copacetic” in the newspaper the other day. My dictionary says the origin is unknown, but it sounds to me as if the word should have more of a pedigree than that. I thought you might be able to add a little.

A: As it turns out, “copacetic” (also spelled “copasetic” or “copesetic”) has a pedigree that isn’t quite copacetic. It’s a word with a fuzzy etymology about which a lot has been written but not much is known for sure.

The adjective “copacetic,” as your dictionary undoubtedly told you, means very satisfactory, fine, or OK. Some dictionaries list it as slang and others as standard English.

The Oxford English Dictionary and the standard dictionaries we’ve checked agree with yours that the origin of “copacetic” is unknown. But that hasn’t stopped people from offering theories about it.

The earliest published example of the word in the OED is from Man for the Ages, a 1919 biography of Abraham Lincoln by Irving Bacheller:

“ ‘As to looks I’d call him, as ye might say, real copasetic.’ Mrs. Lukins expressed this opinion solemnly and with a slight cough. Its last word stood for nothing more than an indefinite depth of meaning.”

The rather vague definition in the final sentence suggests that the word may have been relatively new at the time—or at least new to Bacheller.

Now, let’s look at some of those theories about the origin of “copacetic.”

One suggestion is that it evolved as slang among African-American entertainers in the early 20th century, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.

The tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949) often used the term and helped popularize it. He even claimed to have coined it when he was a shoeshine boy in Richmond, Va.

However, Mrs. Lukins (the woman quoted in the earliest OED citation) doesn’t seem to be black or an entertainer. She’s described as “a very lean, red haired woman” at a quilting party in New Salem, Illinois, where Lincoln lived as a young man.

Here are a few other theories about the origin of “copacetic,” from Green’s Dictionary of Slang, Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, and other references:

● The source is a Chinook Indian term, copasenee, meaning “everything is satisfactory.”

● It’s hoodlum slang contrived from the phrase “the cop is on the settee” (that is, he’s not paying attention).

● It comes from a Creole French word coupersetique, meaning “that which can be coped with.”

● The source is a supposed Italian word spelled something like “copacetti” (this is from John O’Hara, who used “copacetic” in his 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra).

● It comes from one of two Hebrew phrases, hakol b’seder (all is in order) or kol b’tzedek (all with justice).

What do we think of these theories? We’ll let Jonathan Lighter, in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, have the last, abbreviated word: “orig. unkn.; not, as sometimes claimed, fr. Heb, It, or Louisiana F.”

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