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“Jes’ copasetic, boss,”
Being also a Note on Frank Vizetelly

By Anatoly Liberman

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.


Anatoly_liberman
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Artur J.

    Surely that’s (1864-1938)?

  2. Alan

    Italian compiacere – eg compiacersi, compiaciuto – seems close enough in meaning – to be delighted with something; particularly if there’s a Sicilan or other dialect variant. If there’s a strong connection with Louisiana etc, maybe a French dialect equivalent, though complaisir would sound more like standard French today.

  3. Stephen Goranson

    As is well known, the origin of “copasetic” is unknown; or, at least, there is, despite many proposals, no consensus about it. But many agree that the earliest so-far found published use is from 1919. Here I give a suggestion that, as far as I know, has not been made before. This suggestion could be falsified if
    anyone presents a securely-dated use, rather than unconfirmed claimed memories (as e.g. in American Notes & Queries 1943, 72; American Speech 1953, 230-1; and The Believer Oct. 2005 by D. Mamet)–of “copasetic” before 1919. Put simply, I suggest that Irving Bacheller made it up.

    In his 1919 best-selling book _A Man for the Ages: A Story of the Builders of Democracy_, about Abraham Lincoln, Bacheller gives this word to Mrs. Lukins, a person who does not seem to fit any of proposed ethnic associations with the word (in Cajun French, Italian, and Hebrew proposed origins). Mrs. Lukins describes a friend of Lincon admiringly: “‘Stout as a buffalo an’ as to looks, as ye might say, real copasetic.’ Mrs. Lukins expressed this opinion solemly and with a slight cough. Its last word stood for nothing more than an infinite depth of meaning.” (p. 69) Bacheller explains the new word.

    Page 287: “There was one other word in her lexicon [suggesting it may not be in the readers' lexicon yet] 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 signified an unusual depth of meaning.”

    Page 401: “In the words of Mrs. Lukins [on a fine meal at home] ‘it is very copasetic.'”

    The word we are introduced to reportedly has “depth.” Mrs. Lukins has another another special, prized word–unique to her–that also had depth: “coralapus” (pages 212 and 286). The latter is quite probably a newly-made word (I haven’t found it anywhere else). Perhaps “copasetic” was too, the difference being that
    only one of them caught on.

    Stephen Goranson
    http://www.duke.edu/~goranson
    “…for the whole nine yards.” E.S. Land, 1942

    p.s. The full text of the Bacheler’s book is available online at http://www.gutenberg.org

    more text:

    Page 212:
    “A little whitewash wouldn’t hurt it any,” said Abe. “I’ll gladly give him my title of Captain if I could unhitch it someway.”

    “Colonel is a more grander name,” she insisted. “I call it plum coralapus.”

    She [Mrs. Lukins] had thus expressed her notion of the limit of human grandeur.”

    Page 286:
    [Mrs. Lukins:] “He’s a good man. there don’t nobody know how deep an’ kind o’ coralapus like he is.

    She now paused 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 which it was applied. [/page 287] There was one other word in her lexicon [...as above, copasetic].”

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