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I once heard the late John Ciardi (NPR's "A Word in Your Ear") try to explain that the 1920s idiom, "copacetic" (meaning completely satisfactory), entered into the African-American vocabulary in Harlem from the days when Jews and African Americans lived there together. He argued that copacetic has the same meaning as the Israeli idiom "kol b'seder" which literally means "all is in order." The problem with that, said my Harlem-raised father-in-law, is that the Jews in Harlem spoke Yiddish and kol b'seder was not used in Yiddish. The dictionary I've got is not helpful. Can someone come up with a better explanation?

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  • 5
    Do any better answers that we come up with have to be true? :) This word's etymology is uncertain and that is the only reliable answer that you are really going to get. Here are a couple of pages that catalogue many of the better explanations. Here's an Israeli who, like you, doesn't think much of the Yiddish connection. Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 18:58
  • I once heard a really cool guy say it. He was a jazz musician, by the way. So, now I say it once in awhile.
    – user69436
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 18:50
  • I remember the term from TV shows in the 60 -- used by beatniks.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 13:09

4 Answers 4

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The etymology is disputed and linguists do not seem to have a consensus.

Michael Quinion lists a number of implausible reasons and finally ends it with the first clear sighting of the word. This seems to be the closest we could get to a verifiable origin.

“Now there’s the kind of a man! Stout as a buffalo an’ 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.

A Man for the Ages, by Irving Bacheller, 1919.

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  • (Future readers) Note that the Quinion link says there are notable claims of somewhat earlier use (~turn of the century).
    – hunter2
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 3:45
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'Copasetic' in 'A Man for the Ages' (1919)

The word copasetic actually appears three times in Irving Bacheller's A Man for the Ages (1919). The first instance is the one cited in Bravo's answer:

"Now there's the kind of a man! Stout as a buffalo an' as to looks I'd call him [Abraham Lincoln], 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. She added by way of drawing the curtain of history: "I'll bet he didn't dilly dally long when he made up his mind. I reckon he was plum owdacious."

The second occurrence appears in a description of Mrs. Lukins's vocabulary:

There was one other word in her lexicon which was in the nature of a jewel to be used only on special occasions. It was the word "copasetic." The best society of Salem Hill understood perfectly that it signalized an unusual depth of meaning.

And the third appears in a comment by a character invoking Mrs. Lukins as the source of the term:

"It is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Lukins. Their land near Chicago is now used for a cattle yard and slaughter-house and is paying them a good income. They moved here some time ago. He looks after the reservoir. Mrs. Lukins is a famous cook as you will see. We can stay here as long as we want to We shall find everything we need in the well, the chimney, the butt'ry and the cellar. And here is the wedding supper all ready for us and I as hungry as a bear."

"In the words of Mrs. Lukins, 'it is very copasetic,' and I begin to feel that I have made some progress in the study of Bim Kelso. Come, let's have our supper."


The overlap between 'copasetic' and 'coralapus' in Bacheller's 1919 book

Of the three occurrences noted above, the second seems to me to be especially relevant. It comes at the conclusion of the following passage, which again starts with an observation by Mrs. Lukins:

"Ol' John Barleycorn [that is, whiskey] will leave to-night, an' to-morrow the 'Colonel' will be the soberest critter in Illinois—kind o' lonesome like an' blubberin' to himself," she explained. The faithful soul added in a whisper of confidence: "He's a good man. There don't nobody know how deep an' kind o' coralapus like he is."

She now paused as if to to count stitches. For a long time the word "coralapus" had been a prized possession of Mrs. Lukins. Like her feathered bonnet, it was used only on special occasions by way of putting her best foot forward. It was indeed a family ornament of the same general character as her husband's title. Just how she came by it nobody could tell, but of its general significance, as it fell from her lips, there could be no doubt whatever in any but the most obtuse intellect. For her it had a rather indefinite meaning, entirely favorable to the person or the object to which it was applied. There was one other word in her lexicon which was in the nature of a jewel to be used only on special occasions. It was the word "copasetic." The best society of Salem Hill understood perfectly that it signalized an unusual depth of meaning.

The word coralapus, too, appears elsewhere in the novel:

"A little whitewash wouldn't hurt it any," said Abe. "I'd gladly give him my title of Captain if I could unhitch it someway."

"Colonel is a more grander name," she [Mrs. Lukins] insisted. "I call it plum coralapus."

She had thus expressed her notion of the limit of human grandeur.


Changes in the 1919–1920 serialized version of Bacheller's novel

Interestingly, a version of Bacheller's novel that appeared in serialized form in Everybody's Magazine in 1919 and 1920 removed all three mentions of copasetic that had appeared in the 1919 book version. First, from A Man for the Ages: A Story of the Builders of Democracy, chapter 5, in Everybody's Magazine (August 1919):

"Now there's the kind of a man! Stout as a buffalo an' han'some as a pic'tur!" Mrs. Lukins exclaimed and added, by way of drawing the curtain of history: "I'll bet he didn't dillydally long when he made up his mind he wanted ye."

Second, from A Man for the Ages: A Story of the Builders of Democracy, chapter 21, in Everybody's Magazine (November 1919):

"Ol' John Barleycorn will leave to-night, an' to-morrow the 'Colonel' will be the soberest critter in Illinois—kind o' lonesome like an' blubberin' to himself," she explained. The faithful soul added in a whisper of great confidence: "He's a good man. There don't nobody know how deep an' kind a coralapus-like he is."

She now paused as if to to count stitches. For a long time the word "coralapus" had been a prized possession of Mrs. Lukins. Like her feathered bonnet, it was used only on special occasions by way of putting her best foot forward. It was indeed a family ornament of the same general character as her husband's title. Just how she came by it nobody could tell, but of its general significance as it fell from her lips, there could be no doubt whatever in any but the most obtuse intellect. For her it had a large and noble although a rather indefinite meaning, entirely favorable to the person or the object to whom or to which it was applied.

The follow-up sentences in the book version of the novel that talk about the other jewel in Mrs. Lukins's lexicon (namely, copasetic) don't appear in the magazine version of the paragraph.

And third, from "A Man for the Ages: A Story of the Builders of Democracy," chapter 27, in Everybody's Magazine (January 1920):

"It is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Lukins. Their land near Chicago is now used for a cattle-yard and slaughter-house. It pays them a good income. They moved here some time ago. He looks after the reservoir and runs a little farm. She is a famous cook, as you will see. We shall find everything we need in the well, the chimney, the cupboard and the cellar, and here is the wedding-supper and I'm as hungry as a bear."

"In the words of Mrs. Lukins, it looks very coralapus. Let's sit down and eat."

Here Bacheller has simply replace copasetic from the book version of the novel with coralapus.

The first instance of coralapus in the book version of the novel also vanishes from the serialized version. From "A Man for the Ages: A Story of the Builders of Democracy, chapter 15, in Everybody's Magazine (October 919):

"A little whitewash wouldn't hurt it any," said Abe. "I'd gladly give him my title of captain if I could unhitch it someway."

"I'd like colonel better," she insisted.

So of the three instances of copasetic in the 1919 book version of the novel, two simply disappeared and the third was transformed into coralapus; and of the three instances of coralapus in the 1919 book version, one vanished and two remained in place. The net change in occurrences of copasetic was therefore three (from three instances to none), and the net change in occurrences of coralapus was none (from three to a slightly different three, in one of which "coralapus like" acquired a hyphen to become "coralapus-like").


Discussion

What led Bacheller to abandon copasetic in the serialized version of his novel less than a year after publication of the the full-book version? As far as I can determine, Bacheller himself never explained the decision in writing. One possibility is that he decided that having his character Mrs. Lukins treasure two invented words with rather similar meanings didn't make sense and made her seem goofier than she was supposed to be—so he dropped one of the two, which happened to be copasetic.

Another possibility is that he found out soon after publication of the 1919 book version of the novel that copasetic/copacetic already existed in English—a discovery that might have led Bacheller to rethink the desirability of using copasetic, since it would have rendered Mrs. Lukens unique and idiosyncratic usage of the term less humorous and less mystifying. Given that no such complications attached to coralapus, Bacheller might have decided that it was the better term for Mrs. Lukens to deploy as an expression that, to her, had "an unusual depth of meaning."

Aron Sasportas's very helpful answer cites an article by David L. Gold, titled "American English Slang Copacetic 'Fine, All Right' has No Hebrew, Yiddish, or Other Jewish Connection," in David Gold, Studies in Etymology and Etiology: With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance, and Slavic Languages (2009). Most of this article focuses on marshaling evidence in support of the thesis stated in the article's title: that copacetic is not derived from Hebrew or Yiddish and has no Jewish connection. However, it also offers a relevant note on possible instances of the word from before 1919—and hence before Bacheller.

Barnhart and Steinmetz 1988 [The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology] write that copacetic is "said to have originated among southern blacks in the 1800's." In August 1998 I queried Sol Steinmez about that dating and he said: "I no longer have access to the files for The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, but I know for a fact that a pre-1919 attestation was available when the dictionary was being written."

Until someone can supply that pre-1919 {pre-1900?} information, we have to go by the earliest known use of the word : "'Now there's the kind of a man! Stout as a buffalo an' 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" (Bacheller 1919: 69). Later in the same book, the word appears again: "'In the words of Mrs. Lukins "it is very copasetic," and I begin to feel that I have made some progress in the study of Bim Kelso. Come, let's have our supper'"" (p. 401).

Bacheller's not putting copasetic in quotation marks or italicizing the word is strong circumstantial evidence that he considered it to be at least fairly well known. However, he did rite "as ye might say" which might be an indication that at least for Mrs. Lukins this was a newish word, and he did attempt to explain it ("an indefinite depth of meaning"), which are signs that he did not take it to be an old, established, widely known word.

Although Gold's etymological discussion of the shortcomings of the supposed Hebrew/Yiddish origin of copacetic is extremely well informed and (to my limited understanding) seems to demolish that theory utterly, his notes on Bacheller's use of copasetic are less compelling. First, he doesn't mention the third instance of the term in the 1919 book version of Bacheller's novel ("There was one other word in her lexicon which was in the nature of a jewel to be used only on special occasions. It was the word 'copasetic.' The best society of Salem Hill understood perfectly that it signalized an unusual depth of meaning.") In this instance, Bacheller does put copasetic in quotation marks, although the reason he does so is that he is discussing it as a word; if he had instead written, "It was the word 'nostril,'" he would likely have put nostril in quotation marks, as an instance of signaling that the situation involved referring to a word as a word (as The Chicago Manual of Style has traditionally characterized this type of usage).

Second, Gold doesn't mention that the same character (Mrs. Lukins) uses and treasures a clearly made-up word (coralapus) and that Bacheller uses that word three times in the 1919 book edition of the novel, and the only time he put it in quotation marks is when he discusses it as a word: "For a long time the word 'coralapus' had been a prized possession of Mrs. Lukins." As far as I can tell, no one has argued that coralapus existed before Bacheller put it into Mrs. Lukins's mouth, so the fact that it debuts in a sentence without quotation marks or italics ("There don't nobody know how deep an' kind o' coralapus like he is.")

Third, Gold doesn't address the odd changes in the 1919–1920 serialized version of the novel, in which all three instances of copasetic from the book version of the novel are excised—in two instances by omission of the sentence or clause where the word had appeared and in the third instance by replacement of copasetic with coralapus.

I would be curious to know whether full awareness of these three additional considerations would have led Gold to alter his assessment of the significance of Bacheller's use of copasetic in the 1919 book version of his novel.


Proposed origins of the word 'copacetic'

As for the origin of copasetic/copacetic, American Notes and Queries, volume 3 (1943) offers a couple intriguing but by no means entirely satisfactory accounts. From page 72 of the volume [combined snippets]:

COPASETIC. It has been stated that Bill ["Bojangles"] Robinson, the Negro singer and dancer originated the word copasetic some thirty or forty years ago, and that it was he who introduced the word to Hollywood. However, my own search into its origin indicates that the word was in use at least seven years before Robinson was born.

And from page 91 of the same volume [combined snippets]:

In Appointment in Samarra [John] O'Hara said:

"Copacetic" is a Harlem and gangster corruption of an Italian word. I don't know how to spell the Italian, but it's something like like copasetti. In American it means all right. Bill Robinson, whose favorite word it is, has an expression: "Everything is copacetic, everything is rosy and the goose hangs high..."

Robinson was born in 1878, so the unidentified American Notes and Queries writer's claim to have found evidence of its use seven years prior to that puts the claimed origin date at no later than 1871. Regrettably, the writer's evidence does not seem to have been included in his note.

As for the Italian by way of Harlem and gangster patois theory, I don't find any word similar to copasetti in Cassell's Italian Dictionary (1967), which is not an encouraging start to an effort to authenticate the claim.

Another claimed source is French, as outlined in Charles Funk, "Power in Words," in the San Bernardino [California] Sun (October 20, 1952):

Although the late Bill Robinson, the tap dancer, believed that he had originated copesetic, a word that he used frequently to mean "fine and dandy," various bits of information led me to believe that the word was much older than he, but its source still remained a mystery. A short time ago, in this column, I asked my readers for any clue. The following account, slightly condensed, came from Mr. Georges du Pierre d'Erlanger, of Milwaukee.

This word, originally spelled coupersetique, and the English word cope are from the same stem, Old French couper, to strike. Coupersetique, also spelled coupesetique and copesetique, comes to us from the French by way of Creole and is still, or was when I was a boy in New Orleans some 70 years ago, of moderately current usage.

"I have often heard my grandfather and his compatriots use the word copesetic, although they pronounced it cop-setic. They used it as an adjective in the sense of able to cope with something or, more generally, able to cope with anything and everything, or simply 'in good form.' The word also has a special meaning, 'having a healthy appetite for life or love.'

"I believe the general meaning and the one in which Bill Robinson used the word is the original one and that the special one grew out of it in the sense of not only being able to cope with life, but to welcome it and seek it out.

"As far as I know the word was not used outside the Cajun or Bayou region by those not speaking Creole or the CreoleFrench patois, but it is entirely possible that it could have been picked up by anyone in contact with Southerners or more especially natives of Louisiana.

"There is a charming old Acadian poem, title and author long forgotten, of which one stanza ends with the couplet:

'L' Amour des hommes rend veridique

Ces choses qui les rends coupe-setique.'

which means, freely, 'Love gives respectability to passion."

Thank you, Mr. d'Erlanger.

I have no idea how well Georges d'Erlanger's origin story holds up, but it at least has the virtue of placing copacetic from an early period in a Black milieu, which is consistent with several matches for variant spellings of the word from the early and middle 1920s onward.

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  • The most thorough and researched answer on what must be an archaic modern-day expression. IOW I have never come across this adjective in my adult life. However, I do hope future lexicographers who visit your answer will cite you the next time they choose to write an article on this AmEng word.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 11:07
  • @Mari-LouA: The first time I heard a person use 'copacetic' in conversation was in college in the 1970s; a math professor used it informally to describe a properly balanced equation. An Ngram graph of the two primary spelling variants suggests that the term is by no means obsolete, as its frequency of use has grown over the past 50 years—although it may be restricted primarily to the United States.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 21:17
  • Compared to equivalent terms, it looks positively a dodo
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 21:30
  • @Mari-LouA: It's competitive with "hunky dory" and "the cat's meow," according to this follow-up Ngram graph—but it certainly isn't common. I love your wording "it looks positively a dodo," by the way.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 21:39
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It is high time to lay to rest the suggestion that copacetic ~ copasetic comes from Hebrew and/or Yiddish. Details here:

"American English Slang copacetic 'fine, all right' Has No Hebrew, Yiddish, or Other Jewish Connection" = chapter 4 in David L. Gold's Studies in Etymology and Etiology (With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance, and Slavic Languages) / Selected and Edited, with a Foreword, by Félix Rodríguez González and Antonio Lillo Buades. Alicante. Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante. Pp. 57-76.

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  • But how do you prove a negative? Etymon sticks with 'Origin unknown; suspects include Latin, Yiddish (Hebrew kol b'seder), Italian, Louisiana French (coupe-sétique), and Native American. Among linguists, none is considered especially convincing.' Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 19:54
  • Does Gold provide any evidence for this claim?
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 9:28
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I've heard this comes from observation of Jews during the British occupation of Palestine. They'd yell "hakol b'seder" when the coast was clear. It then got absorbed into the jazz/beat culture which was looking for words to express postmodern sort of meanings.

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  • I don't think that makes sense, commparing timelines (of the British Mandate period and @Shyam's Bacheller citation). If it came from b'seder, the cultural setting in the OP (NYC, basically) makes more sense. (Personally and without basis, I find a Hebrew/Yiddish derivation marginally less plausible than the other unsatisfying options.)
    – hunter2
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 9:14
  • @hunter - First, why is 1919 an implausible time period? The British started military occupation in 1917. Second, this answer has nothing to do with Yiddish whatsoever.
    – Charles
    Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 19:22
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    OK, that would mean that in two years, this phrase would become popular, that there would be a group needing it (~Hagana), and that it would get from them to NYC and be taken up rapidly. IMO, that's improbable. // If you read Shyam's link, it suggests (although it doesn't explicitly cite) use decades earlier than 1919. // If you look at the OP and the comment on it, they both mention Yiddish. B'seder is common to both. IMO both are less plausible than, say, the french or Chinook suggestions at Shyam's link - but more than the "cop-on-a-settee", which is just silly. Just IMO / my .02 ...
    – hunter2
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 3:42
  • Currently debating this topic and came across this answer. I certainly don't think this answer should be dismissed entirely (phonetically, there's a good chance this has something to do with the origins of the word), But to answer Charles' comment, it's unlikely that a word introduced so quickly would be recorded back in 1919. There may be other roots from Yiddish to common military parlance for it to be widespread in 1919, but not, I think, the British Mandate in Palestine. Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 18:11
  • @GeoffAtkins Reasonable, but again -- this is not about Yiddish.
    – Charles
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 20:23

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