For some reason, interest in the etymology of copasetic never abates. This adjective, a synonym of the equally infantile hunky-dory, is hardly ever used today unless the speaker wants to sound funny, but I cannot remember a single talk on words without someone’s asking me about its derivation and thinking that the question is of a most imaginative kind. Or perhaps by now all people have heard that copasetic has defied linguists’ attempts to discover its history but still hope to be reassured and come away with a viable solution. In William Safire’s book On Language (1980), four pages are devoted to copasetic, spelled copacetic. Several unverifiable conjectures have been offered to explain how copasetic came about. Those known to me are as follows: from the cop is on the settee (that is, “all is clear”; the alleged place of the phrase’s birth is Chicago), from some Italian adjective that does not seem to exist (“a Harlem and gangster corruption of an Italian word”), from Hebrew hakol b’seder “all in order” or col b’tzedek “all with justice” (certainly wrong, because those expressions are not to be found in Yiddish), from co-phasetic “in the same phase,” an adjective constructed for the express purpose of explaining copasetic, and from French copain(s), c’est épatant “buddy(s), that’s great.” Anecdotes of the cop-on-the-settee type (exercises in so-called folk etymology) are nearly always fantasy, though the pretty tale I told in my latest post on odd English spellings about the history of schooner (presumably, from the phrase: “How she scoons!”) has an aura of respectability, inasmuch as serious language historians believe in its authenticity. It is also a good idea to distrust derivations from acronyms (for example, posh, supposedly from port out, starboard home), though here, too, exceptions exist (snafu is indeed from situation normal, all fouled up, with a less gentle word for fouled). Especially dangerous are the people who believe that, to discover a word’s past, one should make a strong mental effort (rather than do research), and the desired etymology will be conjured up or perhaps come out of the troublesome combination of sounds. They would never try this method with molecules, but words (common property) are a different matter.
It is part of etymological folklore that Bill Robinson, master of the tap dance, liked the word copasetic and asserted that he had coined it. Charles Earle Funk discussed a letter he received from Robinson in the mid ‘thirties: “…he wrote me that he began using it [the word] as a boy in Richmond, Virginia, when patrons of his shoeshining stand would ask ‘Well, Bill, how are you feeling this morning?’ or ‘How’s everything this morning?’ He would reply, he said, ‘Oh, jes’ copasetic, boss, jes’ copasetic.’ … That information was eventually published in the Literary Digest, in the column, ‘The Lexicographer’s Easy Chair,’ of which I was then coeditor with the late Frank H. Vizetelly. Nevertheless, I expressed some skepticism, thinking it more likely that Bill picked up the term unconsciously from the conversation of some older person” (American Speech 27, 1953, p. 230). The paragraph on copasetic (spelled with c in the middle) appeared in The LD 120, No. 20, 1935, p.3, and ended with the sentence: “The Lexicographer would appreciate additional information from the readers of this column.” It produced many responses from the people who said that they had heard the word from their grandparents born in the South. However, no one, contrary to Safire’s correspondents, proposed an etymology. Before I say something about Robinson’s explanation, a few words on “The Lexicographer’s Easy Chair” are in order.
Today Vizetelly (1864-1938) is remembered chiefly as editor of Funk and Wagnalls New “Standard” Dictionary of the English Language, but he did other things too. He compiled (and wrote) several books. One of them has the striking title A Dictionary of Twenty-Five Thousand Words Frequently Mispronounced. Are there so many words that native speakers of English successfully distort? A look at the dictionary makes it clear that Vizetelly was right, only the majority of his 25,000 are so little used that no one ever has a chance of mispronouncing them. They are like the bugaboos selected for the final tour of spelling bees. (I hope that some educational or psychological society will get a government grant and prove that participation in spelling bees ruins participants’ future sex life. That will put an end to the torture. But if you need to know the meaning, spelling, and pronunciation of gematrial, nauruz, psittacism, and their ilk, accept my apologies.)
The word column called “The Lexicographer’s Easy Chair” won great acclaim from the start. People wrote from everywhere. Here is the beginning of another letter Vizetelly received in 1935: “Dear Editor, I have 640 acres under irrigation, $4,000 in a Laramie bank, am forty-two years old, but I am lonely. Can you help me find a wife?” (The LD 120, No. 23, 1935, p. 2). Those who think that linguists spend their lives in an ivory tower are mistaken. “This particular letter,” we read, “causes the Lexicographer, Frank H. Vizetelly, Litt.D, LL.D., to swing back in his Easy Chair and sigh a little wearily. It takes a tough question to surprise him. He has been sitting in his Easy Chair for nearly thirty-two years, since the issue of The Literary Digest, January 23, 1904, and he is up to almost any question you want to ask him. …but this is the first time he has ever found himself in the position of a Miss Lonelyhearts. But it is all in his day’s work. His day starts much like anybody’s when he jumps out of bed at seven, breakfasts, takes the subway and gets to the office at 8:45, after various experiences with the English tongue through the Bronx.”
In 1953, Funk believed that he knew more about the origin of copasetic than he and Vizetelly did in 1935. A Milwaukee man wrote to him that copasetic is Creole-French, from Old French couper “to strike,” and meant approximately “copable.” “It is his belief, he said, that ‘the word was not used outside the Cajun or Bayou region by those not speaking Creole or the Creole-French patois,’ though he thinks it possible, of course, that it may have been picked up and put into limited circulation by anyone who came in contact with natives of Louisiana.” It is probably not too daring to suggest that copacetic ~ copasetic is a word that was coined in the south of the United States and perhaps not too long ago. The earliest citation of copasetic in the Oxford English Dictionary goes back to 1919, and it first appeared in a dictionary in 1934 (Webster). Both spellings (with -s- and with -c-) are acceptable. The rest is guesswork, ranging from absurd to thought provoking.