What is “Cool”?

How has the word “cool” stayed cool for quite so long?


ADJECTIVE: Inflected forms: cool·er, cool·est
1. Neither warm nor very cold; moderately cold: fresh, cool water; a cool autumn evening. 2. Giving or suggesting relief from heat: a cool breeze; a cool blouse. 3. Marked by calm self-control: a cool negotiator. 4. Marked by indifference, disdain, or dislike; unfriendly or unresponsive: a cool greeting; was cool to the idea of higher taxes. 5. Of, relating to, or characteristic of colors, such as blue and green, that produce the impression of coolness. 6. Slang a. Excellent; first-rate: has a cool sports car; had a cool time at the party. b. Acceptable; satisfactory: It’s cool if you don’t want to talk about it. 7. Slang Entire; full: worth a cool million.
ADVERB: Informal In a casual manner; nonchalantly: play it cool.
VERB: Inflected forms: cooled, cool·ing, cools
TRANSITIVE VERB: 1. To make less warm. 2. To make less ardent, intense, or zealous: problems that soon cooled my enthusiasm for the project. 3. Physics To reduce the molecular or kinetic energy of (an object).
INTRANSITIVE VERB: 1. To become less warm: took a dip to cool off. 2. To become calmer: needed time for tempers to cool.
NOUN: 1. A cool place, part, or time: the cool of early morning. 2. The state or quality of being cool. 3. Composure; poise: “Our release marked a victory. The nation had kept its cool” (Moorhead Kennedy).
IDIOMS: cool it Slang 1. To calm down; relax. 2. To stop doing something. cool (one’s) heels Informal To wait or be kept waiting.
ETYMOLOGY: Middle English cole, from Old English cl. See gel- in Appendix I.
coolly —ADVERB
coolness —NOUN
SYNONYMS: cool, composed, collected, unruffled, nonchalant, imperturbable, detached These adjectives indicate absence of excitement or discomposure in a person, especially in times of stress. Cool usually implies merely a high degree of self-control, but it may also indicate aloofness: “Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience” (B.H. Liddell Hart). “An honest hater is often a better fellow than a cool friend” (John Stuart Blackie). Composed implies serenity arising from self-discipline: The dancer was composed as she prepared for her recital. Collected suggests self-possession: The witness remained collected throughout the questioning. Unruffled emphasizes calm despite circumstances that might elicit agitation: “with contented mind and unruffled spirit” (Anthony Trollope). Nonchalant describes a casual manner that may suggest, sometimes misleadingly, a lack of interest or concern: He reacted to the news in a nonchalant manner. Imperturbable stresses unshakable calmness usually considered as an inherent trait: “A man … /Cool, and quite English, imperturbable” (Byron). Detached implies aloofness resulting either from lack of active concern or from resistance to emotional involvement: He sat through the service with a detached air. See also synonyms at cold.
OUR LIVING LANGUAGE: The usage of cool as a general positive epithet or interjection has been part and parcel of English slang since World War II, and has even been borrowed into other languages, such as French and German. Originally this sense is a development from a Black English usage meaning “excellent, superlative,” first recorded in written English in the early 1930s. Jazz musicians who used the term are responsible for its popularization during the 1940s. As a slang word expressing generally positive sentiment, it has stayed current (and cool) far longer than most such words. One of the main characteristics of slang is the continual renewal of its vocabulary and storehouse of expressions: in order for slang to stay slangy, it has to have a feeling of novelty. Slang expressions meaning the same thing as cool, like bully, capital, hot, groovy, hep, crazy, nervous, far-out, rad, and tubular have for the most part not had the staying power or continued universal appeal of cool. In general there is no intrinsic reason why one word stays alive and others get consigned to the scrapheap of linguistic history; slang terms are like fashion designs, constantly changing and never “in” for long. The jury is still out on how long newer expressions of approval such as def and phat will survive.


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by the Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


Cool has had several meanings, nearly all of them older than West Side Story. Its history is more than a little complicated, because several of its senses overlap, and it’s hard to be sure when the rather ill-defined modern slang term came into the language. Also, it’s not always possible to understand how it was being used in some older examples.

One slang sense is “controlled, cautious or discreet”, which was fashionable in the early 1950s in the phrase stay cool. This is first recorded near the end of the nineteenth century, but it’s really a subtle transformation of a standard English form that goes back to Beowulf, in a rather literary metaphor for being unexcited, calm or dispassionate. This turned up in the eighteenth century in the slangy expression cool as a cucumber that is still with us, and in the mainstream language as keeping a cool head—being unemotional or in total command of oneself.

Some researchers suggest that at about the same time a second sense grew out of this standard English meaning, to refer to something that was superlative, exciting or enjoyable (or less strongly, something merely satisfactory or acceptable). The older English meaning was sometimes rather negative, since to be unemotional and in control might imply you were also withdrawn or depressed, lacking warmth, or unenthusiastic (as in someone getting “a cool reception”). Black American English, it is suggested, could have turned this on its head to make something cool its very opposite. If this is true, it would be the first example of a type of slang construction common in modern American Black English—for example bad or wicked. This use of cool only really caught on in the 1930s, but is still common (and is well known, for example, among young people in Britain as well as America, even though a few now insist on spelling it kewl).

This overlaps somewhat with another slang sense, recorded from the beginning of the nineteenth century, that referred to somebody who was assured, audacious or impudent. This turned up in phrases like a cool customer or a cool fish and is also recorded in American English from the 1840s onwards. Yet a fourth sense, of something sophisticated or fashionable, is first recorded from the middle 1940s but is probably rather older. (There are other senses, but let’s not make an already complicated story even more difficult to understand.)

Elements of all these ideas came together in the jazz world in the 1940s, especially in cool jazz—for example Charlie Parker’s Cool Blues of 1947; jazz aficionados used the term to distinguish this style from the hot jazz then in vogue, but also with undertones of at least some of these earlier meanings. It’s with jazz that the slang term was most closely associated and out of which it became more widely known throughout the English-speaking world. In the fifties cool could variously mean restrained, relaxed, laid-back, detached, cerebral, stylish, excellent, or other affirmative things. It became the keyword of the Beat generation and in the 1960s it moved into teen slang—where it has largely stayed.

What is surprising about cool is how long it has been around. Even if you ignore its pre-history, it has stayed in fashion for 50 years or more, a long time for a slang term. And it has remained slang, and not moved into the mainstream. Today it’s just as commonly encountered as it was in the fifties and sixties. Now that’s cool …

Cool Rules
Anatomy of an Attitude
Reaktion Books

Read the Review

What is Cool?

In March 1999 the Levi Strauss company of San Francisco, the largest clothing brand in the world and purveyor of blue jeans to generations of cowboys and teenagers, announced that it would close half of its US plants and lay off 6,000 workers. The reason given was a slump in sales (Levi’s market share halved between 1990 and 1998) but beneath that reason lies another – Levi’s blue jeans are no longer Cool. The question of what is, and what is not, Cool is a matter not solely for schoolyard discussion but also for the boardrooms of all kinds of businesses, from soft drinks and snacks to clothes, cars and computers. Profits and jobs depend upon what may seem a trivial and juvenile distinction to many people.

Cool is rarely out of the news nowadays. One day we are told that UK teachers plan to ‘challenge low aspiration among disaffected youth by promoting the perception that learning is cool’, while next the Barbican Art Gallery in London is staging a retrospective of ’60s photographs by David Bailey under the title Birth of the Cool. There is a resurgence of interest, accompanied by new biographies, of the beat generation writers Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. Cool even affects property prices – a recent book by Mark Irving and Marcus Field chronicles the way in which Abstract Expressionists and other artists in New York City during the ’50s and ’60s colonized grimy lofts in old commercial premises as a form of ‘resistance against Modernist urban redevelopment plans’. However, during the early ’90s a dramatic shift occurred as imaginative property developers moved in on the loft market; ‘From being zones of feisty individualism, lofts became about being rich, marketed as the places in which “movers and shakers” planned their next career spectacular … Suddenly inner-city living was cool.’

Then there is the darker side of Cool. The US hip-hop culture seethes with violence, from the gunning down of artists Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls to the indictment of Puff Daddy for GBH and assault against his video producer. Columbine High School in Denver, Colorado – where in April 1999 two ‘goths’ massacred 25 of their fellow students – was described in the media as divided into four or five sub-cultures, each believing themselves Cooler than the rest, while the killers themselves allegedly consumed ‘industrial quantities’ of drugs. Even the 1999 Kosovo crisis yielded Cool connections: press photographs showed Serbian paramilitaries (and their opposite numbers in the Kosovo Liberation Army) sporting tattoos, bandannas and T-shirts bearing Hell’s Angels insignia, plus the ultimate style accessory, a Kalashnikov assault rifle. While Nato bombs fell on Belgrade, the city’s young people attended rock concerts, hiding in dance clubs rather than bomb shelters and smoking Albanian-grown weed. It is said that during the 1996 siege of Sarajevo, Belgrade clubbers would drive out after a night at the disco to take pot shots at the hapless citizens from the surrounding hills. Meanwhile the Western world is witnessing an epidemic of heroin and cocaine abuse (the two Coolest drugs of all).

What all these references, and many more, suggest is that Cool is not merely a passing fad but is becoming a universal phenomenon that has an important influence on all our institutions, from the media and education to the real estate market and the economy itself (both legal and underground). It is only a slight exaggeration to say that movements in Cool are reported with the same gravity that was once reserved for the gold standard.

A Moving Target

So what exactly is Cool? That is a difficult question to answer at several levels. Firstly there arises the question of its ontological status: what kind of an entity is Cool? Is it a philosophy, a sensibility, a religion, an ideology, a personality type, a behaviour pattern, an attitude, a zeitgeist, a worldview? We shall not concern ourselves too deeply with this question here, leaving that pleasure for others. Rather we intend to take an unfashionably naive approach by simply accepting Cool as a phenomenon that we can recognize when we see it, from its effects in human behaviour and cultural artefacts – in speech and dance, films and television shows, books and magazines, music, clothes, paintings, cars, computers or motorcycles. It doesn’t take too much investigation to understand that Cool is not something that inheres in these artefacts themselves, but rather in people’s attitude to them. Levi Strauss found out the hard way that Cool is not an intrinsic property woven into the blue denim of its jeans: it was the way that their wearers perceived Levi’s that made them Cool, and within a few years that perception would be imperceptibly seduced away by Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

Around the time of the plant closures Levi Strauss’s vice-president of marketing was reported as saying that ‘What kids want is to be acceptable to their peers’ (reported by Hal Espen in The New York Times), but that is only half the answer, and is profoundly symptomatic of how far wrong Levi Strauss had gone. Kids want simultaneously to be acceptable to their peers and scandalous to their parents. What originally made Levi’s Cool in the ’50s was that they were garments associated with the working classes – the term ‘blue-collar’ is a reference to denim work-shirts. In the ’50s and ’60s, for a middle-class kid to wear blue denim rather than grey flannel was an act of symbolic rebellion. But in the ’90s those sartorial rebels are parents and still wearing their Levi’s, so their own children must find something different to express their rebellion. In the UK this was made hilariously explicit when a1998 consumer survey discovered that Jeremy Clarkson, an aggressively middle-class (and blue-jeans-wearing) presenter of Top Gear, a television programme about cars, was almost single-handedly responsible for making denim Uncool to the under-thirties.

Here then is a basis for a rough working definition of Cool that may serve until more of its properties are uncovered in later chapters. Cool is an oppositional attitude adopted by individuals or small groups to express defiance to authority – whether that of the parent, the teacher, the police, the boss or the prison warden. Put more succinctly, we see Cool as a permanent state of private rebellion. Permanent because Cool is not just some ‘phase that you go through’, something that you ‘grow out of’, but rather something that if once attained remains for life; private because Cool is not a collective political response but a stance of individual defiance, which does not announce itself in strident slogans but conceals its rebellion behind a mask of ironic impassivity. This attitude is in the process of becoming the dominant type of relation between people in Western societies, a new secular virtue. No-one wants to be good any more, they want to be Cool, and this desire is no longer confined to teenagers but is to be found in a sizeable minority even of the over-50s who were permanently affected by the ’60s counter-culture.

This brings us to a second difficulty in defining Cool, namely its mutability. If Cool is not inherent in objects but in people, then what is seen as Cool will change from place to place, from time to time and from generation to generation. Those marketing managers at Levi Strauss desperately trying to ‘crack the code of cool’ know that their jeans were granted Cool status by an accident of history, and advertising alone cannot recapture it for them.

In any epoch, although Cool will have a particularly powerful meaning for teenagers, as an antidote to their ever-present fear of being embarrassed, being Cool forms part of a risky series of negotiations about becoming an individual while still being accepted into a group – it’s about both individuality and belonging, and the tension between the two. Once acquired, Cool does not wear off quickly, and since in its modern form it appeared in the ’50s, there are now at least four generations alive who have their own – often seriously clashing – definitions of what is Cool. Recent studies of under-30 drug users reveal that a significant number have parents who first experimented with drugs in the ’60s and ’70s (when they were Cool themselves) and who are now in a quandary about what to tell their children. Each succeeding generation feels that ‘real’ Cool is something pure and existential known only to them – it was founded in their time, in the jazz clubs of the ’50s, or the hippy festivals of the ’60s, or the punk explosion of the ’70s. One component of Cool is certainly a retarded adolescence, inspired in part by a morbid fear of ageing – anyone who has been to a party where 50-somethings get down to the strains of ‘Get Off of My Cloud’ have had a glimpse of the danse macabre.

On the other hand, Cool is equally about teenagers behaving with precocious maturity (especially about sex and political cynicism), and older hipsters are discovering that the behaviour they employed as provocation in the ’60s is now accepted as everyday routine: city streets, cafés, movie theatres and clubs thronged with exuberant youth for whom wearing hair long or sporting a nose ring is considered quite a mild social statement (it’s easy to forget that in ‘swinging London’ in the ’60s the burger joint was the only place open after 10.30pm).

Distinctive clothes and haircuts have always been key signifiers of Cool, but that doesn’t make it purely a matter of fashion. Fashion is the court in which Cool displays itself, but it penetrates deeper than that, down into ‘that within which passeth show’ as Hamlet (one of the first Cool heroes of literature) would have it. Cool is not simply emotional shallowness, lack of passion or enthusiasm, as it is sometimes parodied. Cool’s real work is done inside: inside the seventeen-year-old lad who spends his money on deodorants and Tommy Hilfiger and likes what he sees in the mirror (while fighting down his internal panic that his true feelings might rise up to overwhelm him); and equally inside the successful, fashionable young woman who lives in thrall to an abusive man. Many modern egos are held together by the powerful spiritual adhesive that is Cool. A carefully cultivated Cool pose can keep the lid on the most intense feelings and violent emotions. In the street culture of America’s inner cities, as glorified in gangsta rap, Cool is considered such an important source of respect that people will commit homicide in order to maintain it.

It’s tempting to see Cool as a primarily male phenomenon, an exaggeration of the young male’s tendency toward peacock display and emotional detachment, but it is more complicated than that. There is a sense in which many of the original Cool role models of the ’50s – James Dean, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift – represented a new feminization of traditional masculine images and a break with orthodox macho constructs of the desirable male. The contribution of gay culture (both underground and ‘out’) to the development of Cool is a story that has yet to be told. Also in film and popular music there is a long and strong tradition of Cool female role models, from Garbo, Stanwyck, Dietrich and Bacall, through Billie Holiday, to Nico and Chrissie Hynde. As the new secular virtue, Cool now inspires women as much as it does men, from smart television executives to single parents living in housing developments.

Another misconception about Cool, and one that is equally prevalent among both champions of high culture and their leftist detractors, is that it represents nothing more than US cultural imperialism: that it is simply American popular culture exported around the world. It is certainly true that Cool in its present form has roots in pre-war American black culture and was co-opted and disseminated by Hollywood movies and rock music. However, we shall demonstrate that similar phenomena have emerged in many different countries and over many centuries, and that even in the post-war decades Cool has been significantly shaped by European influences, not least by British popular music and humour.

Cool is a rebellious attitude, an expression of a belief that the mainstream mores of your society have no legitimacy and do not apply to you. It’s a self-contained and individualistic attitude, although it places high value on friendship within a tightly defined peer group – indeed it strives to displace traditional family ties, which are too intimate and intrusive to allow sufficient space for self-invention. Cool is profoundly hedonistic but often to such a self-destructive degree that it flirts with death: by accident, suicide or some ambivalent admixture of the two (for example, a motorcycle crash or auto-erotic strangulation). Cool was once an attitude fostered by rebels and underdogs – slaves, prisoners, political dissidents – for whom open rebellion invited punishment, so it hid its defiance behind a wall of ironic detachment, distancing itself from the source of authority rather than directly confronting it. In the ’50s this attitude was widely adopted by artists and intellectuals who thereby aided its infiltration into popular culture, with the result that today it is becoming the dominant attitude, even (or perhaps especially) among the rich and privileged who can wield it as merely the latest in a long line of weapons with which to put down their ‘social inferiors’. Contemporary Cool is equally at home in the tenement basement and the million-dollar loft conversion. At its most extreme, Cool can even be turned into a manipulative strategy for separating people from their families and encouraging dependency: ‘control freaks’ such as Charles Manson, David Khoresh of the Branch Dravidians (of Waco notoriety), the Reverend Jim Jones and gurus like the Bagwhan Shri Rajneesh have all deployed Cool as an aspect of their manipulative personas.

The New Arbiters of Cool

If Cool is the new virtue, then the worst sin you can commit against it is to be ‘judgemental’, that is, to make disparaging value judgements about someone else’s lifestyle. The next worst sin is to do precisely what we are doing here, namely to attempt to define and analyze Cool. There is a glaring contradiction here, because Cool itself is intrinsically judgemental and exclusive: it can ultimately define itself only by excluding what is Uncool. Moreover the taboo against reflecting on the nature of Cool does not inhibit our mass media from obsessive discussions about what is or is not Cool, countless interviews that ‘rediscover’ Cool pioneers from the demi-monde and endless top-ten lists. Behind this discourse , however, lies a more pertinent question, namely ‘Who will decide what is Cool?’ For whoever decides wields great economic power.

Newspaper editors and their marketing directors are unashamedly dangling Cool as bait for the elusive young adult market. In the UK few readers can have failed to notice the extraordinary transformation that in recent years has overtaken that Great British Institution, the serious newspaper: The Times, The Telegraph, The Observer, The Independent and The Guardian have become virtually unrecognizable. As television has usurped their role as prime transmitters of news events, these ‘serious’ newspapers now sell lifestyle and opinion, recruiting hordes of columnists and editors from the style and fashion press to provide ‘credible’ coverage of the triumphal progress of Cool. A similar trend is discernible in television programming itself, to the extent that one media chief executive of the ’90s (known to colleagues as the ‘King of Cool’) was reputed to commission programmes solely on the basis of whether they would project a suitably Hip image for his station. The evidence so far is that this strategy is failing to halt declines in newspaper circulation and viewing figures.

The election of the New Labour Government in 1997 sparked off a battle between these newspaper columnists to either support or trash a precariously concocted notion of ‘Cool Britannia’, which was fought by incorporating the greatest number of puns on Cool into their headlines. One newspaper even voted Cool its ‘Word of the Year’. Glossy maga- zines splashed the word across their covers to exploit its ‘feel-good’ effect, flaunting membership of the in-crowd for just £2.50. A few more thoughtful commentators fought a desperate rearguard action. A British television critic, Desmond Christy (The Guardian, 3 July 1997), complained ironically that ‘you can’t really get a job in the media any more if you don’t use the word “cool” as your response to most questions and situations.2 A few examples: “What did you think of last night’s X-Files?” Response: “Cool.” “I voted New Labour.” Response: “Cool.” You soon get the hang of it and it saves you from ever being short of something to say.’ The Independent on Sunday ran a fatuous feature entitled ‘A Guide to What’s Really Cool’ which attacked opponents of Cool Britannia: ‘Of course Cool is important’, it babbled. ‘Cool is the summation of all we aspire to. Cool is not an image, a way of looking, talking or doing. It is a way of being.’ This provoked The Guardian to reply with an article entitled ‘The Myth of Cool’, opining that Cool was a marketing conspiracy dreamed up by the UK record industry in cahoots with a certain American ice-cream manufacturer. Amusing as these journalistic contortions may have been, they are less than helpful in understanding what Cool actually stands for.

The Cool Personality

We will argue that Cool is an attitude or personality type that has emerged in many different societies, during different historical epochs, and which has served different social functions, but is nevertheless recognizable in all its manifestations as a particular combination of three core personality traits, namely narcissism, ironic detachment and hedonism.

Narcissism means an exaggerated admiration for oneself, particularly for personal appearance, which gives rise to the feeling that the world revolves around you and shares your moods. At its most positive such narcissism is a healthy celebration of the self, while even in its more negative manifestations it can be an effective adaptation to any oppressive circumstances that sap self-esteem. Such circumstances would appear to include not only the obvious experience of poverty, political repression and tyranny but even life in the celebrity-worshipping consumer democracies of the developed world. Of course to any puritan culture, narcissism appears as the sin of vanity.

Ironic detachment is a stratagem for concealing one’s feelings by suggesting their opposite, for example feigning boredom in the face of danger, or amusement in the face of insult. Philosophers distinguish several types of irony, including Socratic irony, which involves saying less than one really means to lull an opponent into false security, while actually delivering a telling blow to his argument, and Romantic irony, a profound scepticism which questions the validity of everything (as exemplified in the aphorisms of Nietzsche). Cool irony partakes of both these meanings, making it a verbal weapon equally effective in aggression or defence, and crucial to the maintenance of a protective Cool persona. Irony allows one to give deep offence while ostensibly remaining civil, as in the black American tradition of ‘shucking’ speech used to address white authority figures, which offers a subservience so exaggerated that it becomes insolent. Jewish humour has a similar tradition of defensive-aggressive irony, and it was ’60s comics such as Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, coming out of this tradition, who forged a new strain of ‘sick humour’, for example by deliberately using racial epithets as a way of defusing their power to hurt. This type of ironic humour now so suffuses modern Cool that displays of simple sincerity have become almost impossibly Uncool – Quentin Tarantino can make mopping splattered brains off a car seat seem genuinely funny.

Hedonism requires less explanation, except perhaps to point out that Cool hedonism tends toward the worldly, adventurous and even orgiastic rather than the pleasant. At its lightest, Cool hedonism is that pursuit of happiness enshrined in the American Constitution and described so well by de Tocqueville as ‘a love of physical gratification, the notion of bettering one’s condition, the excitement of competition, the charm of anticipated success’. However, long before Freud, artists from Shakespeare to Balzac had understood that the pursuit of pleasure is seldom so uncomplicated – for the Byrons, Billie Holidays, Charlie Parkers and Hunter S. Thompsons of this world, the ‘charm of anticipated success’ would seem to be overshadowed by other, darker motivations.

We will try to establish three chief arguments about this combination of personality traits that we call Cool: that it has sufficient coherence to be recognizable as a ‘syndrome’ that is transmissible via culture and that has a traceable history (although we will do no more than sketch that history); that it is at odds with both European and American Puritan traditions; and that it has until recently appeared in those societies as a form of social deviance and rebellion, but that it is now losing this rebellious status and becoming the dominant ethic of late consumer capitalism. We will argue that Cool has mutated from a religious ethic that served to curb the aggression of young men in warrior societies, to a defence mechanism against the degradation of slavery, a form of rebellion against the conformity of industrial capitalism, and, more recently, a mechanism for coping with the competitive pressure of post-industrial consumer capitalism.

This last point brings us up against one of the central paradoxes of Cool, namely that while at one level it appears to be the antithesis of competition – a nonchalant, unruffled refusal to play by the man’s rules – this is in fact a shallow pose that conceals ferociously competitive instincts. This competitive aspect of Cool is at its most obvious in the arena of sexual conquest, and only slightly less so in sartorial matters, which is a theme we shall revisit at several points in the book. If any reader doubts the reality of this paradox or has trouble encompassing its extremity, they might consider a particular paradigm case – that Coolest of all games, poker, which consists of little more than a number of people using the medium of a deck of cards to pit their Cools against one another, with the intention of financial and psychological conquest.

What we will not be doing here is presenting Cool as an ideology with any particular political content; on the contrary, Cool has attached itself at various times to a bewildering variety of causes and creeds, from cowboy machismo to animal rights, from pacifism to terrorism and from free-market enthusiasm to anti-capitalist anarchism. Behind such diverse manifestations, it is still possible to identify the Cool ethic and aesthetic at work. Take a seemingly trivial gesture like wearing sunglasses after the sun has gone down. Whether the wearer is a movie star, a rock singer, an eighteen-year-old on the prowl in Ibiza, an urban guerilla or a Latin American dictator, the gesture carries the same connotations of detachment and narcissism.

The C Word

A great source of confusion in understanding Cool is the word itself, which already has several closely related metaphorical usages, derived from its physical meaning of low temperature. For example, The Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition:

Cool: to lose the heat of excitement or passion, to become less zealous or ardent. Not affected by passion or emotion, unexcited, deliberate, calm…. while Jonathon Green in his Dictionary of Slang (1998) gives its vernacular usages as:

Cool: late nineteenth century+: good or fine or pleasing; twentieth century: calm, self-possessed, aware and sophisticated; 1940+: fashionable, chic or with it.

These meanings accurately describe an important aspect of the Cool attitude, but at the same time they conceal its underlying transgressive elements, the ironic and defiant character that distinguishes it from many previous versions of nonchalance and savoir-faire. A correspondent to the letters pages of The London Evening Standard (April 1999) claimed that this limited sense of the word dates back at least as far as the mid-nineteenth century, and was used by Dickens in 1836 in Pickwick Papers: ‘[the coachman] pulls out his handkerchief, and wipes his forehead; partly because he has a habit of doing it, and partly because it’s as well to show the passengers how cool he is, and what an easy thing it is to drive a four-in-hand, when you’ve had as much practice as he has.’ This prompted another correspondent to retort with an example of its use in a more ironic sense by Chaucer: ‘thou thinkest in thy wit that is full cole/ That he nys but a verray propre fole.’

‘Cool’ in its meaning of ‘good’, ‘fine’ or ‘fashionable’ is now used as a universal term of approval among the young in North America and the UK (as well as in many non-English-speaking countries), right from children in primary school playgrounds up to college-age adults. A language-use survey conducted among late adolescent junior college students in the USA gave ‘cool’ a 91.57% use and recognition rating, concluding that the word is a key element of a meta-code that cuts across all the many subspecies of teenage argot. Does this then imply that ‘cool’ is a precise synonym for ‘good’ and has no deeper content?

On the contrary, ‘cool’ always carries an extra, often barely perceived, connotation: describing something (a record, a movie, a soft drink) as ‘cool’ rather than ‘swell’ or ‘dandy’ makes the statement, in however small a way, that the person who utters it is Cool and not a nerd or a conformist. Of course the nine-year-old in primary school will not understand such connotations at first, but they will gradually absorb precisely what it is that makes some things Cool and others not in the eyes of their peers, so that merely using the word forms part of an unofficial, alternative process of socialization. Peter Stearns had grasped this meaning when he said that the use of ‘cool’ acts as ‘an emotional mantle, sheltering the whole personality from embarrassing excess … using the word is part of the process of conveying the right impression’.

The implication is that in many contexts ‘cool’ actually means the precise opposite of ‘good’. If someone says ‘It’s cool to do coke’ they don’t mean that it’s good citizenship to take cocaine, or good for your health to take cocaine: they mean it is intensely pleasurable to take cocaine, and that the fact that it’s illegal makes taking cocaine more exciting and makes them Cooler in the eyes of their peers. This sort of ironic inversion of values underlies many other Cool-slang terms like the use of ‘wicked’ or traditionally unclean terms like ‘shit’ and ‘funky’ as terms of approval. Among currently fashionable expressions, ‘Yeah, right …’ is intended to express its exact opposite ‘No, wrong,’ while ‘Whatever …’ as an expression of acquiescence conveys the speaker’s total detachment from the outcome of the decision in question – ‘That’s fine by me!’ would express an Uncool degree of enthusiasm. Stearns offers a nice anecdote to illustrate the consequences of such ironic reversals: ‘A university student writes in an examination that Columbus received a hearty welcome on his return to Spain; when asked why he made such an egregious historical error, he points to the textbook which states quite clearly that the explorer had received “a cool reception”.’

In the USA controversy has surrounded the subcultural origins of the word cool rather than its etymology. Some have claimed the expression originated in the jazz club scene of the ’30s: ‘When the air of the smoke-filled nightclubs of that era became unbreathable, windows and doors were opened to allow some “cool air” in … By analogy, the slow and smooth jazz style that was typical of that late-night scene came to be called “cool”. Cool was subsequently extended to describe any physically attractive male jazz musician, or aficionado who patronized such clubs.’ This has the slightly bogus feel of a ‘myth of origins’, but what is certainly true is that music and sex played a major part in the deriv-ation of Cool, as in the blues lyric ‘Some like their man hot, but I like him cool.’ In fact the word cool became attached to one particular style of jazz in the late ’40s and ’50s, compounding a confusion between the musical style and the attitude (which was exhibited by far more jazz musicians than ever played the style). Besides, the finger-clicking teenagers of West Side Story probably brought the word into the consciousness of more white, middle-class Americans than jazz ever did. Among the ’60s hippies ‘cool’ took on a slightly narrower meaning – closer to its traditional implication of nonchalance – of a calming down to better deal with a problem, which has metamorphosed into the current usage ‘to chill’. However, it was the hip-hop culture of the ’80s and ’90s that restored to ‘cool’ (or ‘kool’) those transgressive and defiant connotations that it still bears for many teenagers today. In the next few chapters we will investigate where this concept of Cool came from, why it finds such a resonance in modern society, and how it operates at the psychological level.

Whichever way you spell it, it’s as well to remember that the word cool is not merely another way of saying ‘good’. It comes with baggage – an alternative set of values which are often profoundly in conflict with official values. For example it is not very smart for a political party to carelessly promote Cool Britannia when it is also committed to a policy of reducing drug abuse. Creative directors in advertising have by now an almost perfect understanding of the power of Cool to sell products to young people, profound enough that they seldom need to brandish the raw word itself (which could be construed as rather Uncool). Indeed they have become so expert at suggesting the attitude through surrealistic imagery and veiled drug references that many television advertisements are now all but incomprehensible to anyone over 30. The agencies understand that to be perceived as Cool demands precisely such a conspiratorial pact with their target viewers, and it is highly significant that Levi Strauss has regained its lost ground with the cryptic but hugely popular ‘Flat Eric’ advertising campaign, featuring a battered old car (take that Jeremy Clarkson), no words and a stuffed toy with attitude.

(C) 2000 Dick Pountain & David Robins All rights reserved. ISBN: 1-86189-071-0

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s