The Birth of Cool

What "cool" meant, and what it means now.
Oct. 1 2013 9:30 AM

The Birth of Cool

Coul, coole, koole: How we got from cool temperatures to cool cats.

Jazz
Coolness must be bestowed, not claimed.

Photo by Archive Holdings Inc/Getty Images

Being cool is hard. Staying cool is harder. It’s an elusive quality, in part because it’s an elusive word with layers of nuanced meaning that peel off as we travel back through the centuries.

At its simplest, cool is neither too hot nor too cold, and it’s with this meaning that the word initially slipped into our language from its cognates in Dutch and German. It appeared originally as col—which can be found as far back as the ninth century, when someone translated the poetry of the Roman philosopher Boethius from Latin into English—and, for a long time, couldn’t quite figure out how it wanted to be spelled. It toyed with coul, flirted with coole, and even went through a koole phase, long before the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company figured out how to brand menthol cigarettes with sophistication. It finally settled on cool, all the while holding on to its sense of climatic moderation, captured very straightforwardly by Daniel Defoe in his novel A Journal of the Plague Year: “The Weather was temperate, variable and cool enough.”

If you think about how thoroughly suffused our language is with temperature metaphors—tempers get hot, blood runs cold, smiles and receptions are warm—it’s not hard to imagine cool making the leap from literal to non. This happened fairly quickly, while English was still Old with a capital O. Whoever wrote Beowulf, sometime in the 10th or 11th century, knew that emotions can come in “waves,” now “boiling” but eventually growing “cooler.” It wasn’t until much later, though, that cool began hinting at its full figurative potential.

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In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus tells his Amazonian bride-to-be, Hippolyta:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.

Hamlet, disheveled and ranting at the ghost of his dead father, frightens his mother, Gertrude, who cries out:

O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience.

By the 16th century, cool had fully evolved from an adjective of the atmosphere around us to one of the attributes within, suggesting deliberation, rationality, and calmness. It wasn’t long before the word began attaching itself to all manner of idiom, cementing its metaphorical turn. A “cool hand” reaches out from more than three centuries ago, a “cool customer” gains purchase, and we’re all kindly asked to “keep cool.”

Exactly when, and where, cool aspired to more than mere composure—to an alluring mix of style, hipness, poise, and who knows what else—is impossible to determine, but there’s a tantalizing piece of evidence from the 19th century. In 1884, a professor at Washington and Lee University named James A. Harrison published an article titled “Negro English” in Anglia, a German journal about the English language. In it, he discusses African-American dialect with the panting excitement, and racist condescension, of a man who has discovered an alien culture in his own backyard. The Negro, he asserts:

… deals in hyperbole, in rhythm, in picture-words, like the poet; the slang which is an ingrained part of his being, as deep-dyed as his skin, is, with him, not mere word distortion; it is his verbal breath of life.

Among the many “Negroisms” that Harrison cites is the interjection “Dat’s cool!,” which is given without definition or explanation, and so we’re left to wonder at how closely its meaning mirrors the modern. 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. But for a concept that’s been around for a century, it’s stubbornly resistant to scrutiny. A couple of years ago, a psychologist named Ilan Dar-Nimrod, now at the University of Sydney in Australia, wanted to figure out which adjectives are most closely associated with cool, or, as he put it, “to determine what those in a coolness-valuing culture mean when they say cool.” Two broad sketches emerged, which Dar-Nimrod called cachet cool (think Marilyn Monroe) and contrarian cool (think James Dean).

As Dar-Nimrod points out, other research over the years has linked a number of behavioral traits to coolness, including sexual appetite, risk-taking, masculinity, and muted emotion. Plug all that into an algorithm, add nicotine and booze, and out pops Don Draper, who couldn’t care less whether you think he’s cool, which, according to research and to the never-ending frustration of Pete Campbell, only makes him cooler.

Getting at the nature of cool is further complicated by the fact that it’s become fashionable in recent years to boast about not being cool. Perhaps the word is being pushed into its next stage of evolution by the freaks and the nerds, whose childhood unpopularity is a badge of honor and whose brave new world of geekery is vindication. No matter what you think of it, coolness cannot be claimed for yourself, say, in a job interview, like diligence or punctuality. If you call yourself cool, you most certainly are not. Only other people can render that judgment, and who’s to say their notion of cool is one that you subscribe to?

Coolness is a fleeting shadow, a flickering light. You may have it today but you won’t tomorrow, and, despite their protestations to the contrary, your parents never did.

Mike Vuolo is a radio and podcast producer and the host of Lexicon Valley.

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