[Ads-l] copasetic, copacetic

Wed Feb 22 15:40:34 EST 2017

I think it unlikely that copecetic/copacetic/copesetic/copasetic was invented by Irving Batcheller and introduced to the public in his 1919 book A Man for the Ages.  The word's varied spellings and association with colloquial speech are not characteristic of a literary origin.  More compellingly, in my view, I do not see how the word could move from this literary origin to its association with Black English.  In the novel the word "signalized an unusual depth of meaning" and was not otherwise defined; it was associated with "Mrs. Lukins," an apparently uneducated white woman.

In all later uses, however, the word has its modern meaning of fine or excellent.  It was associated with Black English no later than 1926; the OED's second quotation is "1926   C. Van Vechten _Nigger Heaven_ 286   _Kopasetee,_ an approbatory epithet somewhat stronger than _all right._"  

In addition, The New York Age on May 15, 1926 (Newspapers.com), ran a block advertisement for a revue starring "Bill Robinson (Bojangles in person)," and the last line read, in quotation marks, ""Everything's Copesetic"".  Apparently this was a line used in his show, as shown in this passage from The Salt Lake Tribune (Jan. 6, 1936) (Newspapers.com), and other newspapers:  "Bill Robinson shows a copy of a letter from Funk and Wagnalls announcing they are going to put his word "copesetic" in their next dictionary.  Bill coined it as a synonym for "all right" or "O.K."  As you may recall he inquires:  "Is everything copesetic?"--And goes into his dance."

Robinson also discussed the term in The Raleigh Register (Beckley, Va.) (Nov. 3, 1935) (Newspapers.com), and other newspapers:  "And Bill Robinson, the Negro dancer, has a letter from a dictionary publisher seeking information about the word "copesetic."  This is Bill's own word, and the publisher wants to find out exactly what it means, whence it is derived.  Bill says it means "Okay," has no derivation, that he invented it and has been using it since he was seven years old."  

For more non-Bojangles examples:  The American Caravan:  A Yearbook of American Literature has some snippets from what appears to be a play with black characters using the term.  This is Google Books' snippet view, but it appears to be correctly dated.  The OED also has this from 1937:  "1937   Amer. Speech 12 243/1   'Everything is copesetic'..is synonymous with 'O.K.', and I believe it is used by negroes in the South."

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Stephen Goranson
Sent: Wednesday, February 22, 2017 5:45 AM
Subject: copasetic, copacetic

Laurence Horn wrote:

Speaking of which, more or less, there was this in Anu Garg's A Word A Day post today (wordsmith.org):

copacetic or copasetic


adjective: Excellent; satisfactory; OK.

Of obscure origin. Competing theories attribute its origin to Black English, Louisiana French, Italian, Yiddish, and Hebrew, but evidence is lacking. Earliest documented use: 1919.

And yes, the OED does have a first cite from 1919, from American journalist Irving Batcheller's _A Man for the Ages: A Story of the Builders of Democracy_.  In fact, the trajectory attested by the OED entry makes it seem to me strongly likely that this is originally a Black English word, which is what I had always assumed, but it's curious that it's still "o.o.o." and that those other theories (Italian? Hebrew? Yiddish? Really?) are out there.

Just checked HDAS, where I see Jon does indeed determine that "copacetic" is "not, as sometimes claimed, fr. Heb., It., or Louisiana Fr.", but still deems it origin unknown.

Can anyone (Jon? Wilson?) help clarify the story?



I proposed on this list in posts beginning on 27 Aug 2007ff {1} that Batcheller invented copasetic (his spelling; OED has copacetic), and coralapus and other words too.

Here is a selection of comments to ads-l and Oxford Etymologist:

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.

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]."


In another post, "Copasetic writer Irving Batcheller," I mention some of his biography, Latin study, and invention of other words:


Stephen Goranson


{1} First post "copasetic and coralapus: a suggestion"





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