Sunday Word: Copacetic
copacetic [koh-puh-set-ik, -see-tik]
(informal) fine, OK, agreeable, totally satisfactory, in excellent order
For months, at exactly 11:15am every Wednesday, it would come on to reassure me that everything would be just copacetic if I would only look beyond my fears and do the work. (Sam Adeoye, One or two quick lessons from the growing world of Sam Adeyemi, The Guardian Nigeria, October 2021)
The term 'Zen' has come to serve as shorthand for a state of being chill, calm, and copacetic. How did an ancient branch of Buddhism eventually become an Insta vibe? (Nicole Shein, 8 Zen Garden Ideas for Peace and Relaxation at Home, bob vila, May 2021)
Grantham never doubted things were copacetic even as Florida's head coach tore into his defensive coordinator on the sideline during last Saturday's win against Kentucky. (Sam Adeoye, Gators coaches Dan Mullen, Todd Grantham move past sideline spat, Orlando Sentinel, December 2020)
'fine, excellent, going well,' 1919, but it may have origins in 19c US Southern black speech. Origin unknown; suspects include Latin, Yiddish (Hebrew kol b'seder), Italian, Louisiana French (coupe-sétique), and Native American. Among linguists, none is considered especially convincing. The popularization, and sometimes the invention, of the word often is attributed to US entertainer Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson (1878-1949) (Online Etymology Dictionary)
Copacetic (with many variant spellings) is probably better known for competing theories of its origin than for any record of unconscious everyday use in American English. The first written occurrence of the word thus far detected (as copasetic) is in A Man for the Ages (New York, 1919), a novel about the young Abraham Lincoln in rural Illinois by the journalist and fiction writer Irving Bacheller (1859-1950), born in northern New York state. In the book the word is used twice by a character named Mrs Lukins, noted for her idiosyncratic speech. Bacheller emphasizes that this word and coralapus are her peculiar property: "For a long time the word 'coralapus' had been a prized possession of Mrs Lukins... There was one other word in her lexicon 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 signaled an unusual depth of meaning" (pp. 286-87). While coralapus passes into oblivion after the novel, it is only the beginning for copasetic - though it is far from certain that Bacheller coined the word.
Copasetic next appears in 1920, in the lyrics of a song, 'At the New Jump Steady Ball,' by the African American songwriters Tom Delaney (1889-1963) and Sidney Easton (1886-1971): "Copasetic was the password for all, At the new jump steady ball [a speakeasy]"; a performance of the song was the first issued recording by the singer Ethel Waters, in March, 1921 (see post and link to the song by Stephen Goranson at the website Language Log, March 3, 2017). This attestation begins a long association of the word with African American speech. It was used by the tap dancer Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson (1877-1949) in radio broadcasts during the 1930's; Robinson claimed to have coined the word in an exchange of letters with the lexicographer Charles Earle Funke (see Funke's article 'Bill Robinson's 'Copesetic',' American Speech, vol. 28 , pp. 230-31, citing an earlier column by Funke and Frank Vizetelly in The Literary Digest, vol. 120, no. 20 [November 16, 1935], p. 3). Funke's American Speech article apparently inaugurates the tradition of searching outside English for the origin of copacetic. He cites a report by a correspondent from Milwaukee that the word comes from Louisiana French coupe-sètique; the correspondent even proffers its use in a couplet from 'a charming old Acadian poem.' Unfortunately, outside of this claim, such a word is not known to exist in any variety of French.
The same absence of support vitiates other suggested sources, as Chinook Jargon copasenee (not actually attested in Chinook Jargon) and the putative Italian word copasetti produced by the novelist John O'Hara in a letter of December, 1934 (Selected Letters of John O'Hara, New York, 1978, p. 100). Most prominent in recent decades has been the hypothesis that copacetic is borrowed from Israeli Hebrew hakol beseder 'all is in order' (in a transliteration from pointed spelling ha-kōl bĕ-sēdher), a calque on expressions in European languages (German 'alles in Ordnung', Polish 'wszystko w porządku', Russian 'vsë v porjadke'). This etymology is thoroughly debunked by David Gold in 'American English slang copacetic 'fine, all right' has no Hebrew, Yiddish, or other Jewish connection,' Studies in Etymology and Etiology (Universidad de Alicante, 2009), pp 57-76. The notion that an Israeli Hebrew expression not attested before the early 20th century - when a very small minority of the world's Jews, mostly in Palestine, actively spoke Hebrew - could be the source of copacetic is beyond improbable. Until more evidence appears the origin of copacetic remains obscure. (Merriam-Webster)
It's possible that this word - meaning that something is in excellent order or satisfactory - 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.
The first stages of the flight of Apollo 10, like most of the flights that led up to it, have gone like clockwork. In the words of ground control at Houston, everything has been 'copacetic' - a term of undetermined origin which means perfect.
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 very good 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 more frequent explanation is that it derives from one of two Hebrew phrases, hakol b'seder, 'all is in order', or kol b'tzedek, 'all with justice'; it is suggested these were introduced into the USA by Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants. Yet 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 from the French phrase copain(s) c'est épatant! ('buddy(s), that's great!'), 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... It's certainly an anachronism. (World Wide Words)
... which is a lot of words to say nobody knows.