(This article was first published in May 2016 Lexpert)
Why Cool is So Cool
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.
But.it 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