What the heck does copacetic mean, anyway?
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Well, first off, here's the listing from the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited and © 1994 by J.E. Lighter:
copacetic adj. [orig. unknown; not, as sometimes claimed, fr. Heb, It, or Louisiana F]
1. fine; all right.
1919 in OEDS: "As to looks I'd call him, as ye might say, real copesetic." Mrs Lukins expressed this opinion solemnly. It's last word stood for nothing more than an indefinite depth of meaning. 1930 Franklyn Knights of Cockpit205: Gone loco, that's all--I had to sock him in the jaw, but he'll be copasthetic. 1934 in J. O'Hara Sel. Letters 100: "Copacetic is a Harlem and gangster corruption of an Italian word...In American it means all right. 1944 Kapelner Lonely Boy Blues 7: That's copacetic with me 1950 Funk Hangs a Tale 83: "Well, Bill, how do you feel this morning?"..."Oh, jes' copesetic, boss; jes' copesetic!"...just fine and dandy. 1955 F. Harvey Jet 28: He... gave the old "copacetic" signal with the thumb and fingers. 1959-60 Bloch Dead Beat 108: Everything was still copacetic, everything was fine. 1968 Barrett Green Berets (film): Everything copacetic, sergeant? 1969 Playboy (Dec.) 94: All was copacetic for Namath. 1969 Apollo II Mission Control, in N.Y.Times(July 21) 4: All your consumables are solid. You're looking good in every respect. We copy th DPS venting. Everything is copacetic. Over. 1972 N.Y. Times Bk. Review (April 30) 40a: How long will liberals go on believing in the eventual benevolence of our capitalist sustem? Or-- once Vietnam is really behind us and Nixon replaced-- that everything will be copacetic in the Land of the Free? 1978 W. Bacon Tragic Magic 33: I tried to maintain the fiction that everything was copacetic. 1982 Morning Line (WKGN radio) (July 9): We'll see if everything is still copacetic and cool in the Middle East. a1988 C. Adams Straight Dope 452: The thumbs-up sign, in Rio as in the U.S., signifies evrything's copacetic. a1991 J.R. Wilson Landing Zones 160: These sons of bitches ain't acting right. Something ain't copasetic here.
1959 NYC grade school student: Let's keep this copacetic. 1978 MacKillop & Cross Speaking of Words 147: Fewer still would remember the youth-oriented word from the 1940s and 1950s "copacetic" (confidential, betwen only us.)
Here's the defintion from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language:
copacetic or copasetic (ko´pe-sèt´îk) adjective
Excellent; first-rate: "You had to be a good judge of what a man was like, and the English was copacetic" (John O'Hara).
Word History: We know very little about the origin of the word copacetic, meaning "excellent, first-rate." Is its origin to be found in Italian, in the speech of southern Black people, in the Creole French dialect of Louisiana, or in Hebrew? John O'Hara, who used the word in Appointment in Samarra, later wrote that copacetic was "a Harlem and gangster corruption of an Italian word." O'Hara went on to say, "I don't know how to spell the Italian, but it's something like copacetti." His uncertainty about how to spell the Italian is paralleled by uncertainty about how to spell copacetic itself. Copacetic has been recorded with the spellings copasetic, copasetty, copesetic, copisettic, and kopasettee. The spelling is now more or less fixed, however, as copacetic or copasetic, even though the origin of the word has not been determined. The Harlem connection mentioned by O'Hara would seem more likely than the Italian, since copacetic was used by Black jazz musicians and is said to have been Southern slang in the late 19th century. If copacetic is Creole French in origin, it would also have a Southern homeland. According to this explanation, copacetic came from the Creole French word coupersètique, which meant "able to be coped with," "able to cope with anything and everything," "in good form," and also "having a healthy appetite or passion for life or love." Those who support the Hebrew or Yiddish origin of copacetic do not necessarily deny the Southern connections of the word. One explanation has it that Jewish storekeepers used the Hebrew phrase kol bèsedeq, "all with justice," when asked if things were O.K. Black children who were in the store as customers or employees heard this phrase as copacetic. No explanation of the origin of copacetic, including the ones discussed here, has won the approval of scholars, as is clearly shown by the etymology of copacetic in the first volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, published in 1985: "Etym unknown."
Excerpted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation; further reproduction and distribution in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.
Here's the entry from the Oxford English Dictionary:
Fine, excellent, going just right.
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. 1926 C. VAN VECHTEN Nigger Heaven 286 Kopasetee, an approbatory epithet somewhat stronger than all right. 1933 N. ERSINE Underworld & Prison Slang 29 Copissettic, all right, okay. 1934 WEBSTER, Copacetic, capital; snappy; prime. 1934 J. O'HARA Appt. Samarra (1935) i. 24 You had to be a good judge of what a man was like, and the English was copacetic. 1937 Amer. Speech XII. 243/1 ‘Everything is copesetic’..is synonymous with ‘O.K.’, and I believe it is used by negroes in the South. 1947Down Beat 18 June 4 (heading) Torme not all copa-setic. 1969 Ibid. 20 Mar. 18/1 We hear two city cops chatting. ‘Well, everything seems copasetic,’ says one. ‘Yeah, we might as well move on,’ the other agrees.
© Oxford University Press 1987, 2002
This next section is trawled off of the web. Each entry is followed by the URL of the source if you want to try to dig further on your own.
IS EVERYTHING COPACETIC?
*co*pa*cet'*ic adj. excellent, first-rate. Nobody seems to know for sure where the work "copacetic" came from. Some say from Italian; some say southern Black dialect or Creole French, while others trace it to Hebrew, and there are as many different spellings as there are etymological speculations. Copasetty. Kopasettee. Coupersetique (French Creole meaning "able to be coped with," "in good form," or "having a healthy appetite"). Kol besedeq (Yiddish for "all with justice"). John O'Hara attributed "copacetic" to the Harlem and gangster corruption of an Italian word spelled something like 'copacetti.' The word "copacetic" was used by Black jazz musicians and was Southern slang in the late 19th century. -- source: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition, 1992.
Copacetic [adj. coh-puh-SET-ik]
If something is copacetic, then it's better than okay, it's positively excellent or first rate. The word is also sometimes spelled copasetic.
Like the word okay, this slang word's origins are mysterious. Even the word's "mother tongue" is in dispute. Was it Italian, French Creole, Hebrew, or did it emerge from the southern Black subculture?
Whatever its true origin, copacetic was in use by black musicians during the first decade of the twentieth century. Some say the word was invented by the great black tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who certainly had a lot to do with its spread into popular language.
Did the word come from the Creole French word coupersetique (able to be coped with / able to cope with anything / having a healthy passion for life and love)? Or did it emerge from the responses of Jewish shopkeepers, who said "kol besedeq" (all with justice) when asked how things were going?
Fine, excellent, going just right.
It's possible that this word has created more column inches of speculation in the USA than any other apart from OK. It's rare to the point of invisibility outside North America. People mostly become aware of it in the sixties as a result of the US space program - it's very much a Right Stuff kind of word. But even in the USA it doesn't have the circulation it did thirty years ago. Dictionaries are cautious about attributing a source for it, reasonably so, as there are at least five competing explanations, with no conclusive evidence for any of them.
One suggestion that's commonly put forward is that it was originally a word of the African-American community in the USA. The name of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, a famous black tap-dancer, singer and actor of the period round the turn of the twentieth century is commonly linked to this belief about its origin. Indeed, he claimed to have invented it as a shoeshine boy in Richmond. But other blacks, especially Southerners, said later that they had heard it earlier than Mr Robinson's day. But he certainly did a lot to popularise the word.
A second explanation that's given credence is that it derives from one of two Hebrew expressiona, hakol b'seder, "all is in order", or kol b'tzedek, "all with justice", which it is suggested were introduced into the USA by Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants. Other accounts say it derives from a Chinook word copasenee, "everything is satisfactory", once used on the waterways of Washington State, or from the French coupersetique, from couper, "to strike", or, in a hugely strained derivation, from the cop is on the settee, supposedly a hoodlum term used to describe a policeman who was not actively watching out for crime, and so one who was OK.
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Page created 6 February 1999; last updated 9 February 1999.
Dictionary Definition of Copacetic
Definition of Copacetic
co·pa·cet·ic or co·pa·set·ic (ko pe se tic) adj. Excellent; first-rate: You had to be a good judge of what a man was like, and the English was copacetic (John O'Hara). [Origin unknown.]
WORD HISTORY: We know very little about the origin of the word copacetic, meaning excellent, first-rate. Is its origin to be found in Italian, in the speech of southern Black people, in the Creole French dialect of Louisiana, or in Hebrew? John O'Hara, who used the word in Appointment in Samarra, later wrote that copacetic was a Harlem and gangster corruption of an Italian word. O'Hara went on to say, I don't know how to spell the Italian, but it's something like copacetti. His uncertainty about how to spell the Italian is paralleled by uncertainty about how to spell copacetic itself. Copacetic has been recorded with the spellings copasetic, copasetty, copesetic, copisettic, and kopasettee. The spelling is now more or less fixed, however, as copacetic or copasetic, even though the origin of the word has not been determined. The Harlem connection mentioned by O'Hara would seem more likely than the Italian, since copacetic was used by Black jazz musicians and is said to have been Southern slang in the late 19th century. If copacetic is Creole French in origin, it would also have a Southern homeland. According to this explanation, copacetic came from the Creole French word coupersètique, which meant able to be coped with, able to cope with anything and everything, in good form, and also having a healthy appetite or passion for life or love. Those who support the Hebrew or Yiddish origin of copacetic do not necessarily deny the Southern connections of the word. One explanation has it that Jewish storekeepers used the Hebrew phrase kol bµÌedeq, all with justice, when asked if things were O.K. Black children who were in the store as customers or employees heard this phrase as copacetic. No explanation of the origin of copacetic, including the ones discussed here, has won the approval of scholars, as is clearly shown by the etymology of copacetic in the first volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, published in 1985: Etym unknown.
<American Heritage Dictionary>
copacetic (KO-peh-set-ik) adj.
origin: disputed (*see editors' note at bottom)
1. Excellent; first-rate.
"oh your lovin' is a rare and a copacetic gift"
--Tom Waits, "I can't wait to get off work to see my baby"
"Within a half-mile of home, however, the ghosts are thick, clearly
taking Kalpers back to what was once a copacetic expatriate
existence: a fulfilling marriage, an infant son, evenings out,
eating and dancing in Kigali with a mostly European crowd."
--Joshua Hammer, "After Rwanda", "Outside" magazine, April 1995
2. On good terms [with]*; comfortable [with].
"I watched Johnny Stomp savor my bravado, Davey Goldman write down
the line for his boss's shticks, and Morris Hornbeck do queasy
double takes like he wasn't copacetic with the play. When the
Mick's burn stretched to close to a minute, I said. 'Silence
implies consent. Tell me all you know about the girl, and I'll
take it from there.'"
--James Ellroy, "Since I Don't Have You"
The origin of "copacetic" is disputed. One theory is that the word
originated from the Italian. Author John O'Hara wrote that the word was
"a Harlem and [American Italian] gangster corruption of an Italian word... something like 'copacetti'".
An African-American connection seems possible. "Copacetic" was used by
Black jazz musicians and was said to have been Southern slang in the
late 19th century. Pulitzer prize winning African-American author Yusef
Komunyakaa, a Louisiana native, published a collection of poetry
entitled "Copacetic" in 1984.
The Creole French of Louisiana is another proposed origin, purportedly
deriving "copacetic" from the word "coup=E9rsetique", meaning "able to
be coped with".
Others point to a possible Hebrew or Yiddish origin, from the phrase
"kol besedeq" meaning "all with justice", a common response to a
question like "are things ok?". Proponents say that Jewish shopkeepers
in New York and elsewhere passed the phrase along to black children who
worked in the shops and heard the phrase as "copacetic".
The word has found many homes in modern speech, from conservative
newspapers (the Providence Business News used the word in a headline on
March 25, 1996), to songs and poetry. Below is a fragment of a poem
said to have been written in the 1950's at the City Lights Bookstore in
San Francisco by one or more of the Beat Generation notables:
"Friends, Romans, Hipsters,
Let me clue you in;
I come to put down Caeser, not to groove him.
The square kicks some cats are on stay with them;
The hip bits, like, go down under; so let it lay with Caeser.
The cool Brutus
Gave you the message: Caeser had big eyes;
If that's the sound, someone's copping a plea,
And, like, old Caeser really set them straight.
Here, copacetic with Brutus and the studs, --
for Brutus is a real cool cat;
So are they all, all cool cats, --
Come I to make this gig at Caeser's laying down."
http://bondi-blue.parlez.com/previous_words/copacetic.txtNEWS FLASH: David Mamet weighs in (1 October 2005):
The word “copacetic” entered the general American vocabulary in the 1960’s. It is understood to mean “proceeding in a very desirable fashion” or, in the vulgate, “cool.” All the dictionaries I have searched list its origin as “unknown.” But I know its origin, and it is particularly Chicagoan, and I will share it with you.
I discovered the word as a footnote in a Jazz Age history of Chicago crime. In a chapter devoted to hotel thieves, the author related this linguistic curiosity. The Palmer House, in the Victorian era, was the ne plus ultra of Chicagoan grandeur. The wealth of both East and West met in the railroad capitol, and repaired to the Palmer House.
In their wake, of course, came sharpers, grifters, and thieves of every stripe. These strivers, though, it was reported, were thwarted by the House Detective, a man of such talents the lawless were dissuaded by his very presence. No one could move while the house dick was on the prowl.
However, all that lives must rest, and this Cerberus was no exception. Once each shift, though at a random o’clock, the detective would retire to the second-floor lounge to put his feet up. His favorite perch was a particular settee. When the cop was so seated, the coast was clear for crime, and the office went round from one entrepreneur to another: “All is well, for the Cop is on the settee,” or, over time, “Cop-a-cetic.”
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.
source: Linguistic Anomalies for Shut-Ins by David Mamet from the October 2005 (Vol. 3, No. 8) issue of The Believer.
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