Everything’s Copasetic

I don’t think I’ve ever posted an entire Wikipedia article before, but this one was too full of delight for me to stop myself. One of my favorite words has always been “copasetic,” though I never knew exactly how to spell it before. I found myself wondering about its origins. The dictionary etymologies weren’t particularly helpful, but Wikipedia was a gold mine. This lovely, mysterious word may be Chicago gangster argot, Chinook Jargon, ancient Hebrew, or even Louisiana Creole. Who wouldn’t adore a word like that?


Copasetic, also spelled copacetic, copesetic or — less commonly — kopasetic, means very satisfactory or acceptable.

Copasetic is an unusual English language word in that it is one of the few words of seemingly unknown origin that is not considered slang in contemporary usage. It is used almost exclusively in North America, and is said to have been first widely publicized in communications between the astronauts and Mission Control of the Apollo Program in the 1960s.

Etymology

The earliest known usage given in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Irving Bacheller 1919 biography of Abraham Lincoln:

1919 I. BACHELLER Man for Ages iv. 69 ‘As to looks I’d call him, as ye might say, real copasetic.’ Mrs. Lukins expressed this opinion solemnly… Its last word stood for nothing more than an indefinite depth of meaning.

There are many theories to the origin of copasetic. It is widely accepted that it originated from some form of American slang. This conclusion stems from the slow introduction of the word into the written language mainly through use in periodicals and in character dialog in 20th century novels. Copasetic may have originated from African American slang in the late 19th century. It was used by African Americans in the American South (most notably by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) and by jazz musicians in Harlem in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

One theory claims the origins are from the Creole French language of Louisiana, specifically from the French word coupersètique (meaning “able to be coped with”; from French couper, to cut).

David Mamet has written an article about its origins. He suggests that “copasetic” is a contraction of “All is well, for the Cop is on the settee.” The American Heritage Dictionary lists alternate spellings that include copasetty and kopasettee, lending some credence to Mamet’s theory. Mamet states:

Yes, I agree. The derivation sounds improbable in the extreme. But I fully credit it. Why? I came across it as a footnote in a book written forty years before the word became generally known. It was not, therefore, an attempt to describe the origins of a mysterious word (as this is) but a tasty tidbit in a book about crime. The rub, however, is that I can’t locate the book.

The book that Mamet references might be Gamblers Don’t Gamble by Michael MacDougall who, in 1939 (not quite the forty years previous to 1960 that Mamet remembers), provided the same etymology, also tracing its origins to Chicago criminal activity:

There’s a lot of gambler-conman-criminal atmosphere about that language. I don’t want to write a dictionary of gambler’s lingo. But copasetic for instance. That goes back to the old Palmer House in Chicago which, as a very plush hotel, was a fat field for chump-hunters to work. But they could work freely only when the house-detective wasn’t on the prowl. The house-dick’s favorite spot for resting his feet was a certain settee down in the lobby. The chump-hunters usually kept a sentry with an eye on the settee who would report when “the cop was on the settee.” As these words gradually ran together, they became copasetic and added a word to the language.

Copacetic may be a descendant of the Hebrew phrase hakol beseder (literally “all in order” הכל בסדר) meaning “everything is all right,” or hakol betzedek, meaning “everything is justified.”

Another theory is that copacetic may have originated from Chinook Jargon, a trade language used in the Pacific Northwest to communicate between tribes, and European traders. The preposition “kopa” is very common in the language, and “Kopasetty” may have been used to mean “doing just fine.” This theory was first put forth by Donald L. Martin who stated it derives from the Chinook Jargon word copasenee (“everything is satisfactory”).

Yet another theory, put forth by novelist John O’Hara in 1934, claims (without evidence) that the word entered the African American slang lexicon via the Italian of American mobsters. Quoting O’Hara, “I don’t know how to spell the Italian, but it’s something like copacetti.” There is no such word in the Italian language, however.

Alternate spellings

Dictionary of American Slang entry:

  • kopasettee
  • copasetty

Want more? You might also check out this interesting page.

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Categories: Language, Words | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Everything’s Copasetic

  1. Hmm. . . . I am interested in the Creole origin because it would seem that might be where the idiom “I can’t cut it” might come from.

    Chump-hunters. Love it.

    I am never amazed when I find seemingly disparate languages have similar words with similar meanings. I have actually come to expect it. Thus, words may seem to come from several languages.

    Maybe it is from the brain’s hardware. Or wetware, perhaps. A much better term that would make more sense to anyone who has worked with brains.

  2. I don’t think I’ve seen it spelled any way other than “copacetic” until now. I’m pretty sure the first time I encountered the word that made me sit up and take notice was in a Grateful Dead song, too. *laugh*

    My favorite word in English has to be “defenestrate.” What a wonderfully, bizarrely specific word.

  3. Metta: I know a few other folks who love the word “defenestrate,” too. I imagine a couple of them like the activity as well.

    Adam: “Can’t cut it” is apparently a shortened form of “can’t cut the mustard.” “Cut the mustard” is first recorded in an O. Henry story of 1902: “So I looked around and found a proposition [a woman] that exactly cut the mustard.”

    It may come from a cowboy expression, “the proper mustard,” meaning “the genuine thing,” and a resulting use of “mustard” to denote the best of anything. O. Henry in Cabbages and Kings (1894) called mustard “the main attraction”: “I’m not headlined in the bills, but I’m the mustard in the salad dressing, just the same.” Figurative use of “mustard” as a positive superlative dates from 1659 in the phrase “keen as mustard,” and use of “cut” to denote rank (as in “a cut above”) dates from the 18th century.

    Other theories are that it is a corruption of the military phrase “to pass muster” (from the Latin monstrare, “to show,” means “to assemble [troops], as for inspection”); that it refers to the practice of adding vinegar to ground-up mustard seed to “cut” the bitter taste; that it literally means “cut mustard” as an example of a difficult task, mustard being a relatively tough crop that grows close to the ground; and that it literally means “cut mustard” as an example of an easy task (via the negative expression “can’t even cut the mustard”), mustard being easier to cut at the table than butter.

    Interestingly, monstrare is also a distant relative of “monster,” in the sense of “malformed animal, creature afflicted with a birth defect,” where monstrum meant “omen, portent, sign”: abnormal or prodigious animals were regarded as signs or omens of impending evil.

  4. “I imagine a couple of them like the activity as well.”

    Only with money and good sense. *laugh*

  5. I like to defenestrate people. It’s a hobby. It is especially lovely with a nice oubliette to toss them into so you never even hear them hit the ground.

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