The Word Without a Past

I was reading something online yesterday (I’ve already forgotten what; it was some post on the ArXiv blog I think) and I encountered a word I hadn’t seen before. Since it looked like a nice word, and I had the time, I looked it up, and discovered it had a simple definition that would make it easy to work into my vocabulary. Then I discovered it has one of the fuzziest etymologies of any word I’ve ever seen, which made it appeal to me even more. Like a mixture between Remington Steele and the word “abstruse.”

The word is “copacetic,” pronounced as though it rhymed with “diabetic,” and according to the venerable old OED, it means “fine,” “excellent,” or “going all right,” as in “No problems officer; we’re all copacetic.”

Now I confess this definition itself surprises me. “Copacetic” sounds like a type of prescription to me ( “Get him on an strong dose of copacetics, stat!”) or maybe like a snide variety of humor (“Ronald, hardly a man quick on his feet, knew better than to challenge her copacetic wit”). Nevertheless, the most interesting thing about this word isn’t just it’s surprisingly simple meaning, it’s that it’s origin’s can’t be traced before 1919. Now I’m no student of etymology so I don’t know for sure, but I have to imagine it’s fairly rare to find a word, especially one that isn’t in common usage as modern slang, that has such shallow roots.

OED, for example, gives it’s earliest known usage as appearing in Irving Bacheller’s A Man for Ages, in the sentence  “As to looks I’d call him, as ye might say, real copasetic.” But an “earliest known usage” is not an etymology any more than a story about your morning counts as a memoir. Merriam Webster simply offers “Origin Unknown” in the etymology tab, and the American Heritage Dictionary, being less terse, says “Of obscure origins. Popular attributions…lack supporting evidence.”

World Wide Words is more willing to engage in speculation, acknowledging that the word has questionable origins and that it’s most probable source is the Africa-American community of the early 20th century. From there, however, the theories get progressively weirder:

A more frequent explanation is that it derives from one of two Hebrew expressions,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. 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 a truly striking linguistic mystery to me. Why anyone would need a word that sounds more like a chemical (“a beaker of 1M copacetic acid…”) than a synonym for “okay” escapes me, but then, I guess there are a lot of things about language that defy utilitarian evolution. At the end of the day, I guess, it’s none of my business if a word wants to keep it’s dark past a secret. It’s a pretty word, it rolls of your tongue, and you can use it more than once a month. In my book, any word like that is just plain copacetic.

And yes, the post title as a reference to this excellent movie. No, I don’t know why you haven’t seen it either. You should probably do that.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to The Word Without a Past

  1. Moominmamma says:

    Ah! A post after my own heart! The only thing I have to add is that, in the late 60s and early 70s, “copacetic” had a brief flirtation with frequent usage among the young and the hippie fringe, and meant, essentially, that everybody or everything was what today might be described as “chilled out”. I occasionally use this word this way myself, in somewhat sarcastic homage to my youth, and my guess is that there is therefore a slim chance that you actually have heard this word before. It seems just the kind of word that would appear in an old Simon and Garfunkel song.

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