Posted by: episystechpubs | October 22, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Copacetic

Dear Editrix,

This morning, I heard a ‘90s rock song with the following lyric: “And you just don’t get it / You keep it copacetic.”

I had only a vague idea of what “copacetic” meant, so when I got into work, I consulted Merriam-Webster. It gave the definition “very satisfactory; fine and dandy” and then, intriguingly, “origin unknown.”

Can you shed any light on the history of this word?

Rockin’ and wondering.

Dear Rockin’,

My first thought was that I’d heard this in a lot of movies, and I love mafia movies, so I was thinking maybe that where it was from. Then I realized I didn’t really have a clue, so I started digging a little deeper.

First, I started with my buddy at the Online Etymology Dictionary. Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far. This is what he had to say:

copacetic (adj.)

"fine, excellent, going well," 1919, but it may have origins in 19c. U.S. Southern black speech. 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.

On the Stack Exchange, someone provided more information, but the question still wasn’t answered:

I once heard the late John Ciardi 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?

The answer was no.

A general Google search says this:

Copacetic is an unusual English language word in that it is one of the few words of unknown origin that is not considered slang in contemporary usage. Its use is found almost exclusively in North America. Its most likely origin comes from African American slang in the late 19th century.

I went a little further to see what Wiktionary said. It covers a lot of the different theories, including these (I have not made changes to the text, so it contains some errors):

  • Nard Jones in Seattle (1972) mentions copacete as Chinook Jargon. He was from Seattle and rather old by then, and seems to have had more than a smattering of Chinook Jargon. He discusses at some length people roughly a generation older than him who were fluent. I myself moved to Seattle in 1977 and I would say that "copacetic" was and remains pretty current here. Pretty sure I’d rarely, if ever, heard it before coming here…. So, whatever its origins, it may be mostly a regionalism.
  • The writer of The Disco Blog uses it annoyingly frequently and she appears to be American software developer.
  • It is mentioned in the song Dirty Frank by Pearl Jam, from their first album Ten. The song tells the story, in a humorous way, of a bus driver that is a cannibal. It is mentioned in this verse: Keeps it clean, keeps it copaseptic // The little boys and girls, their heads are all collected. The way it is used here implies a meaning similar to copiously clean, aseptic or antiseptic.
  • It is used in the Grateful Dead song "West LA Fadeaway" ca. 1982, in a phrase discussing the narrator’s job fencing stolen goods for the mob: "the pay was pathetic/it’s a shame those boys couldn’t be more copacetic."
  • The blues/jazz/swing musician, Cab Calloway, included it (spelled ”kopasetic”) in the 1944 edition of his HIPSTER’S DICTIONARY (subtitled LANGUAGE OF JIVE). He defines it as “absolutely okay, the tops.” I heard it often while growing up white middle-class suburban in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s.

So, the bottom line is that I didn’t find anything more definitive than the dictionary’s “unknown.” Interesting how many stories have come up to define it, however. I hope that makes this worth your while!

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services


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