The Origins of "Cool" - Word Week

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Mark Falanga

By Mark Falanga

Every year, Lake Superior State University in Michigan releases its list of words or phrases that should be banned for the upcoming year. The reason they’re banned is because they’ve outlived their usefulness or have been said so for so long that people are simply tired of them. This year’s list of banned words includes “fiscal cliff,” the expression “YOLO” (short for ‘you only live once’), and “superfood.”

Yes, there’s a town called “Cool” in California. Photo by Alan Levine.

While it’s fair to say that these words have been overused, there’s one word that has been used for decades and has never been on the banned list. That word is “cool.”

Think about it: Your parents and possibly even your grandparents were brought up saying cool as an expression that means, according to dictionary.com, as “used to express acceptance, approval, or admiration.”

So it appears cool is here to stay for the long run. But where did this word come from and how did it take on a whole new meaning?

One of the earliest uses of this slang word that appeared in the mainstream was on campaign buttons for Calvin Coolidge’s presidential election in 1924. It must’ve worked, because he went on to win the election. The term then appeared in the 1930’s, when a new form of Jazz was played with relaxed tempos and a lighter tone that was nicknamed “Cool Jazz.” According to Ted Gioia, a noted jazz music historian, the early pioneers of Cool Jazz were Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer. Later, during the 1950’s until he died in 2012, Cool Jazz pianist Dave Brubek, was considered one of the top performers of this music and, as of this writing, four of his albums are on Amazon.com’s 20 best sellers list for the genre.

The 1950’s brought James Dean, who many consider the epitome of cool. It was during this time that the word took off into the mainstream. The new music of the time called “Rock ‘n’ Roll” featured the word in the lyrics, like the classic 1957 single by Danny and the Juniors, “At the Hop.” It was the word to say about an attitude you had, a feeling you could experience, or in some cases, if you needed animals to be quiet.

But this almost led to the word’s downfall. It had become so mainstream that one word simply wasn’t enough to describe everything that was cool. In the 1970’s, synonyms included “far out,”, “bitchin’,” “boss,” “diggin it,” “groovy,” and “disco.” By the 1980’s, there was “choice,” “chill,” “clutch,” “tight,” “shibby,” and yes, even “tits.” For the next decade, the 1990’s, more synonyms for cool were “shady,” “stylin’,” “dope,” and “phat.”

As we entered the new millennium, a strange thing happened, cool had become… cool again. Other synonyms for cool disappeared even though some words like “jiggy” would make their presence known; it was ushered out almost as soon as it was introduced.

It’s very rare to find a word that transcends generations, especially since cool has its roots in teenage rebellion. Perhaps that’s the reason it has endured so long. Maybe a simple slang word can do more for a person’s psyche to relive their younger days more than anything ever could. Now that’s really…  cool?

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