Saturday, February 11, 2006

"Cool" Is still Cool

'Cool' Always Has Place in Modern Lexicon

- Groovy is over, hip is square, far out is long
gone. Don't worry, though - it's cool.
"Cool" remains the gold standard of slang in the 21st century,
as reliable as a blue-chip stock, surviving like few expressions
ever in our constantly evolving language. It has kept its cool
through the centuries - even as its meaning changed drastically.
How cool is that?
Way cool, say experts who interpret slang for their messages
about society.
"Cool" is certainly a charter member for the slang hall of
fame, says Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of
popular culture. Cool just sits back and keeps getting used
generation after generation and lets the whole history of the
language roll off its back.
Thompson estimates he uses the word 50 times a day as an
egghead professor because no other word quite does the job. He
says its versatility helps explain its staying power.
It is the all-purpose word for OK, good, great, terrific and
every gradation in between, often pronounced nowadays as ``kewl.
Before it became slang, cool was, of course, a literal reference
to temperature, and later a favorite metaphor of writers as far
back as Chaucer in the 1300s. In 1602, Shakespeare wrote that Queen Gertrude told Hamlet: O gentle son, Upon the heat and flame of
thy distemper, Sprinkle cool patience.
By the 17th century, the word helped define a woman's ability to
allay a man's passion through sex. During the horse-and-buggy era,
cooling one's heels described the need to rest a horse with
overheated hooves. The 1800s saw the use of "cool off,'' meaning
to kill, and the cool customer.
Early in the 20th century, it was used to refer to large amounts
of money: "a cool million." In the 1920s, Calvin Coolidge's White
House campaign slogan was "Keep Cool With Coolidge." By the
1930s, cool as a cucumber was ``the bee's knees'' - slang of
the era for ``excellent.
But by the 1940s, cool gained popularity through its use in jazz
clubs, where musicians employed a word that had already enjoyed
wide use among blacks.
The 1997 book ``America in So Many Words'' traces the modern
usage of cool to the late 1940s. In 1947, the book notes, the
Charlie Parker Quartet recorded ``Cool Blues.
A year later, Life magazine titled an article ``Bebop: New Jazz
School Is Led by Trumpeter Who Is Hot, Cool and Gone. And in
1948, The New Yorker said ``the bebop people have a language of
their own. ... Their expressions of approval include `cool.
Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at
Berkeley, says the word should have faded away at the end of the
50s. Instead, it was adopted and redefined by hippies, followed by
surfers, rappers and techno-geeks. Click here for cool stuff,
Web sites say.
Peter N. Stearns, a social historian at George Mason University
and author of the book ``American Cool,'' says cool went mainstream
in the 1950s and '60s because society needed a word to express
attitude without anger.
We were dealing with a culture that was placing an increasing
premium on controlling emotion, particularly anger,'' he says. The
hippies in the 1960s used the word to ``promote the notion that
they were relaxed and not angry.
Since then, he says, the expression has lost some of its vigor
because of overuse. ``When we say somebody's looking cool, we don't
have as much sense of meaning as we did 40 years ago,'' he says.
Now we just mean he's looking good.
Thompson says there is no reason to believe that cool will ever
go the way of linguistic dinosaurs like ``bad'' (meaning good), or
chill (meaning cool off) or groovy, which sounds so ``Brady
Bunch.
Cool is already firmly ensconced in several generations,'' he
says. ``It's got street cred. And it had street cred before we even
used the word `street cred.'

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