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Linguistic Anomalies for Shut Ins

STANDARD SPOKEN ENGLISH HAS THE STRANGEST STORIES BEHIND IT. FOUR BRIEF GENEALOGIES OF BASTARD IDIOMS
by David Mamet
Illustrations by Tony Millionaire

Linguistic Anomalies for Shut Ins

David Mamet
9 Snaps

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.

My various shelves are filled of Chicago history, crime history, criminal argot, and general allied tasty topics, but I’ve misplaced the book in question. This is, then, an attempt like that of the fellow who claimed he could do cold fusion: he may have been right, but peer review marked him out.

Someone, reading this, will, of course, locate the reference, and future dictionaries will, one hopes, amend, their editors overcome with relief, this particular “origin unknown.” But my connection, like that to the Peacock medallion, will be forever lost.

Oh, boo and hoo. For you, dear reader, being fair-minded, cannot, of course, credit me; and the triumphant lexicographer who comes after you will ­rightly claim the laurel for himself. By not even an asterisk will I, in his “origins,” be remembered.

And here is another bad pun, which will be lost to the ever-turning and unfeeling world. The Lost Chord (1877), music by Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan), lyrics by Adelaide A. Procter, was one of the ­Victorian era’s favorite songs. It survived, as part of the parlor musician’s repertoire, ’til World War II, and its title and lyrics resonated, as such a thing will, for a time afterwards, as a tag line.

It surfaced in the late 1970’s in Mary Ann Madden’s most excellent New York magazine joke column called “Competition” as an example of an amusing false attribution. Here is the song’s first line:

Seated one day at the organ, weary and ill-at-ease.

And the gag attribution: “Linda Lovelace.”

So that to get the most excellent joke, one would have to be old enough to recognize the Victorian lyric and conflate same with the porno star, celebrated in 1977 for her oral capacity: her magnum opus, the film Deep Throat, which phrase itself will survive as the cognomen of Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate snitch.

One hundred years on, a brave and underoccupied linguistic sleuth may trace Woodstein’s Deep Throat back to the skinflick. But who could imagine one with the combination of sufficient leisure and ­obsessive-com­pulsive linguistic preoccupation to connect the dots further back, through Mary Ann Madden’s competition, to Adelaide A. Procter?

I seem to’ve lost my loop—a phrase familiar now, but to professional film projectionists, once of a wider currency. In those far-off days before video, amateurs of the moving image shot and projected their own 8 mm or 16 mm pictures. The developed film was ­threaded through the home projector. Part of the film’s demanding path through the machine included a loop, at the bottom of its progress, and just before it passed through the gate through which light was projected. If the loop decreased past a certain point, the image shuddered in the gate and, thus, on the screen. One acting erratically was describable, then, as having “lost his loop.”

The Loop is Downtown Chicago, as it is that area encircled by the Elevated train, or “El.”

A Chicago joke of the 1940s:

Q: Why are you late?

A: Something about Christmas.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Noel.

Q: Noel?

A: That’s right. So I had to walk.

At which point I will declare that I’ve closed the loop, and all is copacetic.

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