Why Cool is Still the Coolest Cool Word

The other night I was in one of my semi-regular YouTube dives, where I get hooked on a particular theme and follow it to the ends of the webiverse, loading video after video on the same subject. This usually happens late at night. I might spend an hour or two watching people repair wristwatches or tune up bicycles. It’s strangely fascinating to me, and very calming. There’s just something about people talking passionately and expertly about stuff I have no expertise in that makes me happy and lowers my blood pressure. Why, I don’t know.

On this particular night I was loading videos of audiophile geeks reviewing the sound quality of vinyl record pressings. If you’re not familiar with this little subculture, it involves men – almost exclusively men, though I’m sure some women have joined the cause as well – who spend buckets of money on high-dollar vinyl reissues, play them on their zillion-dollar turntables and audio equipment, and chat about the latest records they’ve acquired and how they measure up in terms of sonic performance.

On one video, a guy kept dropping the term “dope” into his reviews. As in, “This has a dope walking bass through the first measure, and you can hear how precisely the engineers captured the dope polyrhythmic changes after the second solo.”

The video was only a couple of years old. The dude talking was a middle-aged white man, maybe 40ish, with glasses. The term “dope” sounded kind of silly coming out of his mouth. Then I became curious about the term “dope,” which in this case means “excellent” or “badass.” I know the term was pretty big in the 90s. But I had no idea it was still around.

So  I did a little experiment. I dropped the term “dope” into conversations with my two daughters, ages 11 and 8. I wondered if they’d ever heard it. So I said, “Hey, that’s a dope blouse you have on today.” Or, “That’s a dope video you’re watching.”

They looked at me like I’d just cracked an egg on my head. They had no idea what “dope” meant in this context. I’m guessing they’re far enough along in the youth slang world to know which terms are popular now, and which aren’t. Even though they’re still kids, they consume pop entertainment that might filter up to the tween/teen crowd, so if a term is used by the younger set, our daughters would probably know.

They had no idea what “dope” meant.

But you know what I could have said that they would have instantly recognized and understood?

“Cool,” that’s what.

I could have said “That’s a cool blouse you have on today,” or “that’s a cool video you’re watching,” and they would have known exactly what I was talking about.

“Cool” was popular long before I was born and remains so today. It will outlast us all. It will still be part of our vernacular – still cool – when the sun finally explodes and this planet and civilization are wiped from the annals of memory.

“Cool” as a state of being hasn’t really been around that long, maybe 100 years or so, depending on who you ask. But it’s still old enough to have proven more resilient than all the words that tried to grab its mantle of cool. I’ve personally lived through cool-wannabes like “groovy,” “far out,” “outtasight,” “dynamite,” “with it,” “rad,” “awesome,” “chill,” and, yes, “dope.” They are all weak pretenders to the throne, and most are as dead as the cool side of the graveyard.

Groovy? I never actually heard anyone say the word groovy, except in an ironic sense. I guess it had a moment in the 60s, but it never rose much past the trying-to-be-hip-without-actually-being-hip stage. Whenever you want to find bad TV or movie writing from that era, look for shows that had dialogue with “groovy” in it. The worst Simon & Garfunkle song ever written was “Feelin’ Groovy.” Even Paul Simon hates it now.

“Far out” reached its zenith on the John Denver Show of the 1970s. That was his signature laugh line: “Faaaaaar out!” It was hipster talk for bored suburbanites.

“Dynamite” got some traction from Jimmie Walker on the 70s sitcom “Good Times.” But then that show went off the air and “dynamite” pretty much died with it.

“Outtasight” was a term I probably used from time to time, when the stupid part of my brain kicked into overdrive.

Rad? Strictly for the extreme sports crowd.

With it? No.

Awesome? Not cool.

Chill? Pretty cool. More on that later.

Dope? It had its day, but I sat it out. I’d sound ridiculous saying something like “dope.” I would’ve sounded ridiculous saying it even when it was considered cool.

But I still say “cool.” I’ll always say “cool.” My kids say it. Pretty much everyone else I knows says it, too.

Do you want to know how universal and time-tested the term “cool” is? I wanted to know the origin of the slang use of cool, and so I typed in “origin of the” into Google – and before I typed another letter, it automatically added “word cool” on its own. It assumed that I was searching for the origin of the word cool. Which means there are a whole lot of google searches on “origin of the word cool.” Either that, or Google can now read my mind.

One article I happened across on Slate, titled “The Birth of Cool,” noted that the term “cool” in its current slang sense probably dates to the 19th Century, when a professor at Washington & Lee University published an article about African-American dialects and found that “Dat’s cool” was used in certain black communities. But there are doubts about just how common that term was back then. The article goes on to say this:

By the 1920s, though, cool is firmly fixed as an unambiguous term of approval and even reverence. In 1924, the singer Anna Lee Chisholm recorded “Cool Kind Daddy Blues.” In the early 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston, in her short story “The Gilded Six-Bits,” wrote of a male character: “And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im.” By the 1940s, “cool cat” clawed its way into the jazz scene, and the word has had currency ever since.

Many culture hawks credit jazz saxophonist Lester Young – the immortal “Prez” – with popularizing the word cool. That’s partly because Lester used the word a lot, and partly because the man oozed cool. He was cool in the way he played the sax, venturing away from the hard-blowing sounds of the day toward something more restrained and melodic. He was cool in the way he talked, the way he dressed and the way he conducted himself. He probably looked cool even when he was scratching his ass in the morning.

If there is a Godfather of Cool, it has to be Lester Young. You could take the 12 coolest people you know and together they wouldn’t be half as cool as Prez. He was cool enough to be good friends with Billie Holiday, giving her the nickname Lady Day. He also coined the term “bread” for money.

A 2014 blog from Joel Dinerstein, an author, cultural historian and English professor at Tulane University, had this to say:

The origins of cool are in 1940s jazz culture and the legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young coined it first to refer to a state of mind. When Young said, “I’m cool” or “that’s cool,” he meant “I’m calm,” “I’m keeping it together,” or “I’m relaxed in this environment, and in my own style.” African-American cool can be seen as an ideal state of balance, a calm-but-engaged state of mind between the emotional poles of “hot” (excited, aggressive, intense, hostile) and “cold” (unfeeling, efficient, mechanistic). Jazz musicians often use the concise phrase, “relaxed intensity,” as a synonym for cool. In effect, cool meant then what “chill” means now.

I disagree with the last part. I don’t see “chill” as meaning “cool.” I think “chill” means more like laid back, lazy, perhaps semi-comatose. Cool might be laid back, but it’s still in the action, baby. You might be dressed to the nines and surrounded by the pretty people, you might be cool as a cucumber as you slide through the front door and slip the doorman a fifty, but you are most definitely not semi-comatose. You are with it, dynamite, straight outtasight.

You are pretty damn cool.

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