copacetic

In ancient Rome, there was a tavern that operated under the sign of a sea monster. It was run by a woman who was of an especially cheery disposition. When you came to the sign of the sea monster – the cetus – no matter what the problem, the woman of the tavern – the copa – could make it perfectly fine. And since Latin for “female tavern keeper of the sea monster” is copa ceti, the state of being absolutely fine came to be called copacetic.

That story is 100% false. I just made it up.

But why not? There are at least five other stories about the origin of the word copacetic, and there’s no solid reason to think that any of them are true. Some of them are no less unlikely than the one I just laid before you (in fact, three of them set off my etymological BS detector so much I have to pull its needle out of the opposite wall). 

But, you know, that’s a thing people do: when they don’t know where a word comes from (even sometimes if some people do know), they make up stories. Most often those stories follow on a resemblance of the sound to the sounds of words in some other languages that have, however, no demonstrated connection to the origin of the word. (A popular truism is historical linguistics is “Etymology by sound is not sound etymology.”)*

Well, fine. What we do know is that the first known published use of copacetic was in a 1919 biography of Abraham Lincoln, though the book implied that it was a known colloquial turn of phrase. And we know that Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was a (perhaps the) early major popularizer of the word. In fact, he claimed to have made it up when he was working as a shoeshine boy in Richmond, Virginia – but it’s possible he may have heard it and forgotten that he had; other people from his time and place suggested that it was already around.

We also know that while the spelling has standardized to copacetic in more recent decades (helped, no doubt, by that being the spelling dictionaries have preferred), it has been rendered as copasetic, kopasetee, copissettic, and copesetic, among others. We know that it has a hifalutin’ air, no doubt deliberate – four syllables, with a kind of crisp mechanical sound ending in that -ic ending characteristic of long technical adjectives – and that it was in its origins associated particularly with socioeconomically disadvantaged sets of people. Oh, and that it unquestionably came from the United States.

And we know that people don’t use it as much as they used to.

But that’s all copacetic. It’s just fine. Words come, words go. In its heyday it was a faux-fancy word that bespoke a certain folksy charm. Now it’s a word that suggests a user who came to adulthood in the last century (i.e., when the years started with “19”). It fits in with words like zowie and jalopy. You feel that someone who you hear using “copacetic” in a sentence has, at some time in their life, owned an entire suit of clothing made of polyester.

And by the time copacetic disappears almost entirely from use (if it does), we still might not actually know where it came from. But you know what? That’s also copacetic. Most of us go through life not knowing where nearly any of our words come from. We can use helicopter our whole lives not knowing that it’s made from helico ‘spiral’ and pter‘wing’, and using copter as a blending form because that works for us. And when most of us find out where a word comes from, it’s almost always just an entertaining story with no real effect on how we use it. (Almost always, and most of us. There are certainly exceptions.) And that’s all copacetic too.

Look, our language is really like a tavern with sailors from all over coming in and mixing words and stories, and swapping wares. Sometimes you just have no idea where it comes from. But you like it nonetheless. So let yourself be served by the copa ceti, drink deeply, and all will seem just fine… for a time.

*In English, it’s also popular to come up with acronyms that words are supposedly derived from. Please be aware that no word that’s more than about 100 years old was formed from an acronym, and no vulgarity of any kind ever was (acronyms are used to hide vulgarities, not to create them, WTF). Among words that were definitely not formed from acronyms are posh and golf. The actual historical research is available to people who feel like checking reliable sources.

2 responses to “copacetic

  1. Is WTF not an acronym but an initialism? Enjoy all your post, BTW.

    • WTF is definitely an initialism and, for those who consider initialisms a separate set rather than a subset of acronyms, therefore not an acronym. But I couldn’t at the time think of a clever and suitable pronounceable acronym at the time of writing, and anyway, the broader common definition of acronym still includes it. Thanks!

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