Wednesday, May 11, 2016


(This article was first published in May 2016 Lexpert)       

                                           Why Cool is So Cool
                                                    Howard Richler
When the last century ended, I was somewhat bemused to read in John Ayto’s 20th Century Words, which outlines new words of the past century to find the word “cool” was twice listed: the first time in 1933 adjectively as a term of approval, and in 1953 as a verb to mean to relax as in the expression “cool it.” The reason for my confusion was my knowledge that in fact cool is a very ancient word and there are many references to it in Old English (from the 5th to 11th centuries) with the sense of a senses of calmness of emotions and lack of enthusiasm as well as temperature.
What is surprising about the word cool is its relative constancy in meaning as this is particularly rare in words that have adjectival senses. For example in my book  How Happy Became Homosexual and Other Mysterious Semantic Shifts , I mention that the original sense of careful was “sorrowful”; nice originally meant “foolish” or “stupid”  shrewd also meant “foolish” and initially an enormous appetite was not so much large as “abnormal.” The opposite pattern often occurs when adjectives are endowed with less favourable meanings as with the case of silly that originally meant “blessed” and it connoted being “remarkably good” as late as 1845. The word fulsome is going through a process of amelioration right before our eyes. Until recently, its most common sense was “offensively excessive” but nowadays it is most likely to be employed to mean either “extravagant” or “lavish” and increasingly to mean “full.”
So cool is an anomaly in more or less having the same, albeit multiple senses for well 1000 years. It could mean “dispassionate,” (Chaucer uses it in this sense in a 1440 poem: “Thow thynkist in thyn wit that is full cole”) “audaciously impudent,”  “lukewarm,”  “exhibiting a lack of warmth or affection,” and “not caring about consequences” to name but some of the different flavours of cool.  Abraham Lincoln used cool in this sense in 1860 when he said “That is cool” referring to the intention by secessionists in the South to break up the country. took black jazzmen of the 1930s and 1940s to transform this word into its modern sense as a term of approval. This change may have evolved from a previous slang sense of “shrewd” which itself may have evolved from its “impudent” sense. Cool reached a wider audience after World War II by which time it had acquired a sense of “laid-backness” associated with jazz as well as one of “stylishness.”  On the jazz scene, the word cool first came to be associated with saxophone player Lester “Pres” Young in the early 1940s.  The term made its debut in popular publications in 1948. That year a headline in Life magazine announced, “Bebop: New Jazz School is Led by Trumpeter who is Hot, Cool and Gone” and The New Yorker stated: “The bebop people have a language of their own… Their expressions of approval include ‘cool’.”  That same year music critics started to use cool to describe a particular relaxed form of jazz. For example, a music review in The Bridgeport Telegram announced “Hot jazz is dead. Long live cool jazz!” Probably owing to the term’s endorsement by mainstream media it wasn’t long before cool became a desired state of being for white adolescents. In an article entitled “When ‘Cool’ got Cool,” lexicographer Ben Zimmer relates that a "June 1952 article about teen slang in the St. Joseph, Michigan Herald-Press explained that ‘to be cool’ is the desire of every teen-ager.”
Cool started to lose some of its insouciance by the middle of the 1960s. As the term became overused it lost its sense of an existential awareness that differentiated one from “squares.”  However, in the 1970s it enjoyed a renaissance as people became nostalgic for the perceived simpler times of the 1950s as exemplified by the popularity of the television show Happy Days(1974-1984)  and the movie Grease (1978).
What explains the endurance of cool?  Linguist Donna Jo Napoli believes its appeal lies in the “underspecified” nature that allows it to adjust to many different contexts. I’m not convinced this alone explains its popularity. In his book  Contagion: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger, a  marketting professor at University of Pennsylvania,  posits an interesting theory to explain the success of cool. He says that our senses, such as sight, smell and touch, play a large part in determining which words catch on. As examples, he mentions that the phrases “bright student” and “cold person” are more popular that their equivalents “smart student” or “unfriendly person.”  He also cites the expression “sudden increase” that came into vogue in the 19th century but was superseded by the expression “sharp increase” that started to be used at the start of the 20th century. Words like cool that describe those who are “au courant” are particularly changeable which is why the term “spiffy” from the 1940s and “swell” from the 1950s had a short shelf life.
This appeal to the senses perhaps explains why cool has been hot for two millennia.
Richler’s book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit was published in May 2016

Monday, May 9, 2016

Mother's Day

(This article appeared in the May 2016  Senior Times)

Feminist organized first Mother's Day in 1908
                       Howard Richler

Thanks to the efforts of American Ann Jarvis,
Mother’s Day began as a way of honouring the
sacrifices Mothers made for their children.
After gaining financial support from a Philadelphia
department store owner named John Wanamaker
in May 1908, she organized the first official
Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church
in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day, a wellattended
Mother’s Day event was held at one of
Wanamaker’s retail stores in Philadelphia. Canada
quickly picked up on its southern neighbour’s
initiative, and inaugurated Mother’s Day in 1909.
Following the success of her first Mother’s Day,
Jarvis, although never married and childless,
resolved to see her holiday added to the calendar
roster. An early feminist, she argued that
American holidays were biased toward male
achievements, so she started a letter writing
campaign to newspapers and politicians urging
the adoption of a special day honouring
motherhood. By 1912 many states, towns and
churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual
holiday, and Jarvis had established the
Mother’s Day International Association to
help promote her cause. Her persistence was
rewarded in 1914 when President Woodrow
Wilson signed a bill establishing the second
Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in the USA.
Jarvis had originally conceived of Mother’s Day
as a day of personal celebration between Mothers
and their families. Her version of the day involved
wearing a white carnation as a badge and visiting
one’s mother or attending church services. But
once Mother’s Day became a national holiday, it
was not long before many mercantile concerns
capitalized on its popularity.
By 1920 Jarvis became so disgusted by the crass
commercialization of the holiday that she urged
people to stop buying Mother’s Day paraphernalia.
She also launched several lawsuits against groups
that had used the name “Mother’s Day,” eventually
spending most of her personal wealth on legal fees.
Jarvis disowned the holiday altogether and, up until
her death in 1948, actively lobbied the government
to have it removed from the American Calendar.
Celebrations of Mothers and motherhood can be
traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who
held festivals in honour of the mother goddesses
Rhea and Cybele. The clearest precedent for modern
Mother’s Day is the early Christian festival known
as “Mothering Sunday.” Once a major tradition
in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, this
celebration fell on the fourth Sunday in Lent and was
originally seen as a time when believers would return
to their local “mother church” for a special service.
Over time the Mothering Sunday tradition
changed into a more secular holiday, and children
would present their mothers with flowers
and other gifts. This custom eventually faded in
popularity before merging with the American
Mother’s Day in the 1930s and 1940s. Due to its
religious connections, Mother’s Day in the United
Kingdom still falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent
which this year was celebrated on March 6.
At times, Mother’s Day has also been a date for
launching political or feminist causes. In 1968
Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King,
used Mother’s Day to host a march in support
of underprivileged women and children. In the
1970s women’s groups also used the holiday as
a time to highlight the need for equal rights and
access to childcare.
Perspicacious readers may have noticed that
most languages seem to have a word for Mother
that is either ‘mama’, or has a nasal sound like ‘nana’:
Arabic ahm, Chechen nana, Greek mana, and
Quechua mama. The reason for this was discerned
by pioneering Russian-American linguist Roman
Jakobson. The easiest vowel sound for babies
to utter is ‘ah’ because it can be made without
doing anything with the tongue or lips. And when
babies close their lips, as is done in nursing, this
transforms the ‘ah’ sounds into ‘mahs.’ Of course
the baby isn’t really speaking, but it sounds to
adults as if the baby is addressing someone, most
likely the Mother. Naturally, Mom takes ‘mama’
as meaning her, and when speaking to her baby
refers to herself as ‘mama.’
As Mother’s Day is now celebrated in over forty
countries, let me wish all Mothers a joyous day on
Sunday, May 8, wherever they may dwell.
Howard’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged and
Deranged Wit will be launched at Crowley Arts
Centre, 5325 Crowley, May 24. Join Howard
between 6 and 8:30 for refreshments.