LINGUISTIC ANOMALIES FOR SHUT-INS

STANDARD SPOKEN ENGLISH HAS THE STRANGEST STORIES BEHIND IT. FOUR BRIEF GENEALOGIES OF BASTARD IDIOMS

by David Mamet

My desk once held a most treasured artifact, a paperweight from the Chicago Jewelers, C.D. Peacock.

Peacock’s was founded in 1837, the same year that Chicago was granted a city charter. In the late nineteenth century they issued a commemorative medallion. Embedded in it was a piece of iron warranted to be an actual remnant of their vault, which had melted in the Great Chicago Fire.

My medallion disappeared in some move or other. Also lost is my resolution to a great etymological mystery. Here, as we say, is the deal.

The word “copacetic” entered the general American vocabulary in the 1960’s. It is understood to mean “proceeding in a very desirable fashion” or, in the vulgate, “cool.” All the dictionaries I have searched list its origin as “unknown.” But I know its origin, and it is particularly Chicagoan, and I will share it with you.

I discovered the word as a footnote in a Jazz Age history of Chicago crime. In a chapter devoted to hotel thieves, the author related this linguistic curiosity. The Palmer House, in the Victorian era, was the ne plus ultra of Chicagoan grandeur. The wealth of both East and West met in the railroad capitol, and repaired to the Palmer House.

In their wake, of course, came sharpers, grifters, and thieves of every stripe. These strivers, though, it was reported, were thwarted by the House Detective, a man of such talents the lawless were dissuaded by his very presence. No one could move while the house dick was on the prowl.

However, all that lives must rest, and this Cerberus was no exception. Once each shift, though at a random o’clock, the detective would retire to the second-floor lounge to put his feet up. His favorite perch was a particular settee. When the cop was so seated, the coast was clear for crime, and the office went round from one entrepreneur to another: “All is well, for the Cop is on the settee,” or, over time, “Cop-a-cetic.”

Yes, I agree. The derivation sounds improbable in the extreme. But I fully credit it. Why? I came across it as a footnote in a book written forty years before the word became generally known. It was not, therefore, an attempt to describe the origins of a mysterious word (as this is) but a tasty tidbit in a book about crime. The rub, however, is that I can’t locate the book.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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David Mamet is the author of sixteen plays, including Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo; ten films, including Wag the Dog and The Spanish Prisoner; as well as children’s books, translations, adaptations, poetry collections, and novels.

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