Copasetic

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This is a guest post by Stephen Goranson.


The source of "copasetic," meaning "fine," has been sought in Yiddish, Hebrew, Creole French, Italian, Chinook, and in a putative assurance from an accomplice of a thief in the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago that the house "cop's on the settee." But, probably, a novelist coined the word. There is good reason to think that Irving Bacheller invented the word for a fictional character with a private vocabulary in his best-selling and later-serialized 1919 book about Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, A Man for the Ages. Despite extensive searches, and conflicting rumors, there is no known earlier attestation.

The word is presented three times:

"'Stout as a buffalo an' as to looks, as ye might say, real copasetic.' Mrs. Lukins expressed this opinion with solemnity and with a slight cough. Its last word stood for nothing more than an infinite depth of meaning." [p. 69; the narrator comments on the word used for approving  a fine appearance].

"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." [p. 287]

"…in the words of Mrs. Lukins [commenting on a fine meal, she being a "famous" cook] 'it is very copasetic'." [p. 401]

Mrs. Lukins had another, prized word—unique to her and indisputably a neologism—that also had "depth," namely "coralapus" [pp. 212 and 286].

That Bacheller invented somewhat  Latinate words can be further corroborated in his other publications, including his 1928 memoir, Coming up the Road: Memoirs of a North Country Boyhood, as well as in "Irving Bacheller: A Critical Biography," a 1953 St. Lawrence U. Ph.D. dissertation by Charles R. Samuels (for his study of Latin).

The Chicago Daily Tribune, having given the Illinois Lincoln book a favorable review on January 24, 1920, on August 21, 1920, borrowed Mrs. Lukin's collocation "very copasetic" as a humorous headline involving another cook.

More importantly in 1920, a new song was published: "At the New Jump Steady Ball." This early Prohibition Era song uses "copasetic"—in the spelling identical to that in the novel—as the "password" to a speakeasy.

"Copasetic was the password for one and all, At the new jump steady ball."

The sheet music with the MCMXX copyright is available here.

Ethel Waters recorded the song in March, 1921—her first record. It's available on youtube, and you can hear "copasetic" at about 1:44 and 3:09:

Here's the first one:

[The lyrics are not easy to follow, so this transcript may be helpful.]

On hearing this song one could imagine how (later) alternate spellings for "copasetic" arose: copacetic, kopacetic, kopasette, kopassettee, copasetty, among others. As the 1919 fictional character was unlikely to have used African American English–or Creole French, Yiddish, or Chinook– this 1920 song provides a probable vector into popularity in, among other places, the jazz scene in Harlem.

By the way, the lyricist, Sidney Easton, left an unpublished 316-page typescript memoir in the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, in case anyone wishes to check it for "copasetic."


Above is a guest post by Stephen Goranson.

I'll note that the OED's entry for copacetic calls the etymology "Origin unknown", but gives Bacheller's 1919 novel as the first citation.



20 Comments

  1. Bartleby said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 8:41 am

    It's a perfectly cromulent word.

  2. Dave Wilton said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 10:33 am

    I'm skeptical about Bacheller's invention of the word. It seems more likely that he used a slang term that was "in the air" at the time. The Chicago Tribune connection is very tenuous. The book review makes no mention of the word or of the character's language, and it was written by a Sylvia Parkinson, who apparently contributed only this one review and was not on the paper's staff. The appearance eight months later in an anonymous headline cannot be seriously connected to Bacheller's book. And the appearance in song lyrics that same year hints that it was already in somewhat widespread use that year.

  3. Robert Coren said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 10:37 am

    I always thought it was copacetic.

  4. Joyce Melton said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 10:59 am

    I've only ever heard the word used ironically, that is, saying something was copacetic (and note my spellchecker prefers it with a c) meant that it wasn't as it should be, nor as it claimed to be. The irony was conveyed by vocal tone.

  5. rootlesscosmo said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 11:09 am

    The lyrics of "At the New Jump Steady Ball" put me in mind of "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence."

  6. Rube said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 11:14 am

    Coincidentally, I just used the word the other day, and got a look of confusion from my 16-year-old. I don't think it's used much in common parlance anymore.

  7. cameron said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 11:20 am

    The 90s band Velocity Girl's first album was titled Copacetic. They had a rebus for the album name printed on the CD. Three images: a policeman for "cop", a playing card for "ace" and a bloodsucking insect "tick". That's an interesting rebus in that the images don't indicate the components of the word as pronounced, but only the letters of the word's spelling – and even that falls apart given that "copacetic" doesn't have the final -k.

    That album's title track is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WI3qvLppDk8

  8. DCBob said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 11:39 am

    What a great post!

  9. Lewis said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 12:11 pm

    I haven't heard (or read) that word in 50 years. My mother used it once, and I figured out the general meaning from context, but I remember wondering at the time where she might have picked up such a word! So I'm pleased to learn that it was used in a song by Ethel Waters; a jazzy number is a very likely source since my mother was not averse to partying.

  10. Haamu said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 2:11 pm

    I acquired this word from my grandfather, who was born in 1905 in western Pennsylvania and spent his adult life in and around Cleveland, Ohio. I'm pretty sure he pronounced it "copesthetic" with a "th" — which I see from briefly googling is an occasional variant.

    He was known for one other nonstandard word: "saronsified," which is how he always declared his condition after a good Sunday dinner.

  11. Ryan said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 9:30 pm

    I like to think that the only reason this word has seen any usage at all in the past few decades is because the band Local H had a hit with the song Bound for the Floor, which used the word prominently.

  12. Paul said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 10:16 pm

    I learned this word from my Abstract Algebra professor in 1999. At the end of some argument or other, he asked, "Is everything copacetic"? In response to our silent confusion, he silently wrote on the chalkboard "Copacetic=OK"

    He was from Lithuania, but had lived in Chicago for some decades.

  13. djbcjk said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 11:43 pm

    Short or long o?

  14. Rodger C said,

    March 4, 2017 @ 11:43 am

    Long to me.

  15. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 5, 2017 @ 11:09 am

    Here are the uses of "coralapus" in the 1919 novel (that was later syndicated), a word which appears in no other text, according to HathiTrust.org and several other searches.

    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 286-7: [Mrs. Lukins:] "He's a good man. There don't nobody know how deep an' kind o' coralapus like he is."
    She now paused as if to count [knitting] 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 object to which it was applied. [/p.287] "There was one other word in her lexicon….'copasetic.'"

  16. beowulf888 said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

    Copacetic is commonly used in my Silicon Valley engineering circles. One is most likely to hear the term used by a balding bearded sysadmin who wears suspenders (braces?), but the younger coder folk have certainly picked up the expression. And I've seen our immigrant Indian employees use it in their communications. I wonder if it will will travel back to Indian English via Silicon Valley?

  17. LSS said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

    I heard a theory that the word is actually derived from Hebrew – kol b'seder ( כל בסדר) (all in order, i.e. it's all good) and that it was bastardized through mixture of Jewish and black performers mostly in NY in the early part of the 20th century.

  18. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 4:40 am

    LSS, that proposal is discussed in detail in the following publication, the title giving his conclusion: David L. Gold: "American English Slang Copacetic 'Fine, All Right' Has No Hebrew, Yiddish, or Other Jewish Connection," in his book, Studies in Etymology and Etiology… (Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante, 2009) 57-76.

  19. LSS said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 8:36 am

    Stephen, thanks for the reference.

  20. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 15, 2017 @ 6:39 am

    In case I did not word it clearly enough for one reader, I offer that the 1919 and 1920 copasetic uses show signs of textual transmission, and many later uses show influence of oral transmission.

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