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?

  • 4
    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. – coleopterist Mar 11 '13 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 Mar 19 '14 at 18:50

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.

  • (Future readers) Note that the Quinion link says there are notable claims of somewhat earlier use (~turn of the century). – hunter2 Sep 10 '13 at 3:45

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.

  • 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 Sep 4 '13 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 Sep 9 '13 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 Sep 10 '13 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. – GeoffAtkins Dec 29 '20 at 18:11
  • @GeoffAtkins Reasonable, but again -- this is not about Yiddish. – Charles Dec 29 '20 at 20:23

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