Dear Straight Dope: You use the word “copacetic” in your columns, but, where does this strange word actually come from? I thought it was African-American slang, but, then again, it sounds Greek or Egyptian (i.e. were the Coptics copacetic?). ken
SDStaff Eutychus replies:
Another bag of worms has officially been opened.
According to most sources, the word was popularized by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson way back in 1919. He claimed to have coined the word when he was a shoeshine boy back in Richmond, Virginia. However according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was first used in that same year by Irving Bacheller in his book Man for the Ages, a biography of Abraham Lincoln. That’s where any agreement on the word starts to break down.
Various origins for copacetic have been suggested, none of which, according to pretty much every report I read, has any supporting evidence:
- John O’Hara used the word in his book Appointment in Samarra. He states that it had its source in an Italian word which he believed to be something like “copacetti.” That’s about as close as he came.
- One traces it back to a Creole French word coupersetique meaning “that which can be coped with. “
- Another source traces it to one of two Hebrew phrases, hakol b’seder, “all is in order,” or kol b’tzedek, “all with justice.”
- Another tells of a source in the Chinook word copasenee, which means “everything is satisfactory.”
- One most likely fabulous explanation says that it is a corruption of the phrase “the cop is on the settee,” meaning that local law enforcement was none too vigilant and things were thus OK.
One source suggests a combination of two of these possibilities. Southern black children could have heard the Hebrew word from Jewish shopkeepers and interpreted it as “copacetic” thereby introducing it into Southern black slang.
Take your pick. It’s all copacetic to me.
SDStaff Eutychus, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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