Really, What's Cool?

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Think back to the first time you used the word “cool”—maybe it was while watching a talented athlete or describing your favorite artist’s new song. Perhaps it was in reference to a toy you received as a birthday present, or while using a computer for the first time—really any situation where the joy and amazement of what you were experiencing overwhelmed your ability to describe it in more than one smooth word.

It may be hard to pin down the very first time you referred to someone or something as cool, but odds are you’ve used it thousands of times since. Cool has a slate of dictionary definitions, but quick summaries like “fashionably attractive or impressive” or “calmness and composure” don’t do it proper justice. It’s a word that’s almost comically overused and yet still radiates a sense of uniqueness; it subverts formality and accepted authority while simultaneously affirming it.

David Skinner, an author and editor of HUMANITIES magazine, published by the National Endowment for the Humanities, found himself fascinated by the pervasiveness of cool. He did an extensive amount of research around the word’s origins, which stem back to the rise of jazz culture in the United States, and wrote about it a 2014 article entitled “How Did Cool Become Such a Big Deal?”

“There’s some kind of break around World War II in our sense of how formal public language should be, and cool seemed to provide such a rich example of how to think about it,” Skinner tells BTRtoday. “How public language, public standards, but also literary language all became surprisingly less formal, even as America was becoming more broadly educated.”

Skinner’s research led him to “The Cool School,” a book published by the Library of America that chronicled jazz writing from the 1940s by the likes Mezz Mezzrow. While jazz is among the first cultural examples of white appropriation, the word cool provides one of the first linguistic examples of African American culture being adopted by white culture.

“The world cool and how it developed as African American slang, and then become popular with white people, is an interesting early example of cultural appropriation in the way people think about it today,” he explains. “That makes it sound quite dark and sinister, but I think cool is also an example of certain situations and times where white appropriation of black culture is appreciative and admiring–almost envying.”

The irony is cool’s adaptation by white culture came during a time when civil rights tensions were at their highest. Black veterans of World War II were not receiving the same respect and treatment as their white counterparts, and many aspects of Jim Crow were still alive and well.

“The reception of jazz and the reception of cool as the African American slang word of choice both involve thinking about our difficult racial history,” Skinner says.

As young—particularly white—American popular culture was reborn during the 1940s and ‘50s with the arrival of television and teenager culture, cool really began to cement its foothold in American English parlance. Skinner explains that there were other positive words that preceded and ran alongside it over time, such as swell, rad, awesome, and phat, to name a few. Despite the dearth of positive affirmations to choose, people kept coming back to cool time and again.

When it comes to the reasoning behind cool’s sustained success, that’s up for debate. Skinner describes it as a “phonetically attractive word,” as there’s a bit of cooing involved when pronouncing it. Cool also rhymes well, which has led it to show up in a number of songs and has certainly added to its longevity. There’s also something to say for its simplicity.

“It’s a word that gets spoken by itself a lot, like ‘yes,’ ’no,’ or ‘okay,’” he says. “You get to hear those words in isolation, which is how we learn ‘yes’ and ‘no’ words so easily from other languages, even when we don’t know any other words in those languages.”

The working definition of slang for the “Historical Dictionary of American Slang” is a “nonstandard, nontechnical vocabulary composed chiefly of novel sounding synonyms for standard words and phrases that pack a rhetorical punch.” Cool fits that bill well—there’s nothing technical about it, but its weight and novelty, despite its universality, are undeniable.

“Slang is slangy,” author and noted linguist Jesse Shiedlower tells BTRtoday. “When you hear it, it packs a punch. It doesn’t have to be a synonym for something, but one of the purposes of slang is to rebel against something that’s standard.”

Cool fits that bill well—there’s nothing technical about it, but its weight and novelty, even despite its universality, are undeniable. It’s informal at its core, and still effuses the nonconformist attitude from the jazz culture that birthed it.

“In American popular culture, we’ve taken the nonconformist as a national hero, a uniting figure for us,” Skinner says. “Very few people these days think of themselves as an organization of mainstream people. It’s just not really how we’re trained to think about ourselves.”

What we are trained to do, however, is shift and manipulate language to our liking. Shiedlower explains that the likelihood of a slang word spreading is based on a number of factors, but that the largest one by far is chance. With the internet continuously shaping the way we write, speak, and think, it’s more possible than ever for a word to catch and spread like wildfire.

“It’s a very large change in terms of the way this used to work in the past, in that if something is coined or comes to popularity for any reason, it can spread instantly to anyone,” he explains. “In the past, that was never possible.”

For those who consider themselves language purists, this might seem scary, but there’s no need to worry. Successful civilizations have used slang for centuries, including Ancient Greece and Rome. Adaptation and spread of slang doesn’t signal our collective ignorance or the end of society—it simply highlights voices that weren’t previously spread beyond their given bubble or group.

“People have always spoken informally,” Shiedlower says. “Now, everyone has a potential voice, and when we see what’s out there, we’re seeing what people really say. So it gives the impression that everything’s gone to hell, when if fact we’re just seeing the way things have always been. We simply couldn’t see before because it wasn’t available to us.”

The word cool has been available for a long time, so much so that it’s no longer very informal. There’s an argument to be made that its commonality goes against the very schismatic tendencies it used to represent. But even with the rapid fire spread of internet lexicon, it’s hard to imagine another word with the stickiness and appeal of cool washing away.

“Surely, there’s a way in which cool is eventually doomed, where we’re going to see through this hollow lie we keep telling ourselves and see that we can’t really all be that cool,” Skinner says jokingly. “But I don’t know when that’s going to happen.”