© January 12, 2014
Some words have a mystery to them. Although “Thank you” is most likely offered as a term of appreciation in every country of the world,sometimes as one word, each country has its own way of expressing that meaning. Not so for “cool”. Cool is cool, everywhere.
All over the world, every kind of person seems to understand what “cool” means and how to use it. I am guessing that it originally traveled wherever jazz musicians played in Europe, Africa or Asia, because if ever two words were eternally joined, “cool jazz” would seem to be first on a list of them.
Since the majority of jazz musicians originated in the United States and were overwhelmingly Black, I think the popularity of the two words were first adopted by the young people who appreciated the “otherness” of the new sound from the New World; the mysterious, to them, culture of those musicians, and the fact that using the word “cool” in the context of that kind of music was intended to not only convey how much they liked the music itself, but also to say that they, the listeners, were sophisticated enough to appreciate it, though or because their far more conservative elders despised the new music.
Using the many words I just wrote above to attempt to define just one word, only makes this project more interesting to me. I hope my readers will feel the same way.
When my three-year-old daughter accurately used the word “cool!” in a sentence to tell to me how wonderful our planning to let her ride on a nearby merry-go-round was, my being a wordsmith made it very mysterious to me how she understood to use that word correctly in a sentence to say exactly what she meant. Except there are so many other meanings for the word. There must be something to its sound and brevity to cause a person to choose to use it in widely different circumstances. I thought I might try to list some of them here.
One note that mystifies me: even though the many meanings of “cool” are all generally some version of approval or agreement, a beautiful, desirable woman is never “cool”. She can only be “hot”. Go figure (a Yiddish idiom).
# 1 – An appreciation of a new sort of design for something very common: a 1957 Chevy would be called a “cool” car.
# 2 – Within the world of jazz, an older term (1920’s, ‘30’s, 40’s, or ‘50’s) for someone much admired would be a “cool cat”. But a particular musician, even within that exclusive world, compared to others like him, such as a drummer or saxophonist, would be: ” The coolest!”
But going forward, each generation used the word “cool” successively for the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Dylan, for example, and those musicians would retain that high compliment for their art, even as they aged over decades. But generally only for their original fans, who aged with them. Their children, however, would be mystified by this situation and pick their own musicians whom only THEY could describe as cool, but whom in turn their parents would find revolting.
In that situation, “cool” is also an expression of rebellion and exclusive possession: “Mom, Dad, these are MY heroes. You simply can’t understand.”
# 3 – An agreement to meet or do something such as, “I’ll meet you at the bar after work,” meaning “got it” or “OK”, generally said matter-of-factly and without enthusiasm: “Cool”.
# 4 – Expression of sublime appreciation for a different way of doing something, such as 3-D glasses at a movie theater in the early 1950’s: “Cool!”
# 5 – How good an experience a particular drug might cause to happen, the purpose being to attach “coolness” to the supposed connoisseur doing the recommending or selling of that item, like a strain of marijuana from Tibet or Ireland: “I know so much more than you know, I am SO “cool”, so trust me without question”.
# 6 – Imagining something far in the future and out-of-this-world, like colonizing Mars. Said slowly, quietly and drawn out with wonder, like: “Coooooool.”
# 7 – A situation involving danger and trust, for example, like in the movie The Godfather, Al Pacino’s inexperienced mob character, Michael, being assured by his elder gang members that a functioning gun would, in fact, be hidden and securely taped behind the toilet tank so he could kill the two men waiting at his table: “Cool”, spoken quietly, with subdued nervousness, but also absolute trust meaning, “I understand and believe you”.
# 8 – Dividing up responsibilities among a group of people to create an event, like a tailgate party at a football game, where each can be depended to do their part, meaning, ” I agree with what you ask of me”. This would not be used in reference to the United States Congress assembling to declare war or anything else for that matter. The government, no matter what they do, is filled and controlled by old people (in the cool people’s eyes) and therefore can never, ever, be “cool”.
Unless one of them smokes grass after work with selected constituents in their home district. That would be exceptionally “cool”. In that case, the message is: “I am NOT like all those other worn out old guys.” But also a very inefficient way to gather supporters for re-election. Except in San Francisco.
# 9 – A person at a party who doesn’t seem to need anyone’s company or approval, generally first happening in high school, the birthplace of torment. That person would be secure in their dress, attitudes, appearance and sex appeal. That person quickly attracts slavish followers who absolutely agree that he or she is “way too cool” for the room, or whatever room they may happen to be in. Forever.
Such reprehensible people (ok, obviously I was never one of them) expect and assume that even after they die, that same word will be used to describe them throughout eternity. This is a negative use of the word, depending on who a person was in that scenario.
# 10 – Stating with confidence that a person can be trusted no matter what the situation: “He’s cool”.
# 11 – Suggesting that a certain place, like a new restaurant, is significantly better than all the usual places a group hangs out. Similar to # 5, except not illegal. Unless alcohol is served to a sophomore in such a place. Even after the arrest of the minor served and also the server, and the subsequent closing of that restaurant, it will always be recalled as “cool”. This is an example of the irrational use of the word. Parents know this.
# 12 – A person in authority who has the ability to cause you some kind of harm because of something you did, but chooses to not exercise their power, like a cop deciding to let a person caught speeding to go on their way with only a warning. The meaning here is that the person allowing the crime to go unpunished is unusually kind or understanding, especially when such kindness is rare. Spoken with relief and appreciation, this can even be said when one is alone, or silently to one’s self, generally with amazement. It means that this person is the exception to the rule:”Now that cop was cool.”
# 13 — On the other hand, related to the above definition, if you were the person of whom something is requested, and you were the deciding vote about whether it happened or not, you might say, calmly and reassuringly: I’m cool with that.”
# 14 – An unexpected social advance, in some people’s eyes, of a previously illegal activity becoming legal: Utah legalizing recreational drugs. Or anything else, in their case. Wisconsin can be “cool”. Vermont can be “cool”. Utah, in a world of its own, is forever banned from “coolness”. Some may disagree. We know who you are.
# 15 – A person is doing something different and/or unexpected, perhaps creative and challenging, like, say, my writing this story. Other people notice what is being done and approve of it in a way that is inexpressible other that saying the single sublime word: “Cool!” (That actually just happened. I only had 14 definitions before that.)
I have used 1,617 words to suggest that in my perspective of English idioms, these examples of the word “cool” or variations of it will be understood and believed as accurate definitions, and how a non-speaker of English might use them. Or even a person from an English-speaking country might use them with confidence. Unless, of course, they are not “cool” people and see no value to this, my contribution to world communication. I never graduated from anyplace recognized as an institution of higher learning, whatever the hell that actually means, but that fact does NOT somehow ban me from “coolness”.
“Coolness” can only be confirmed by others, not by one’s self. It’s right there in the Bible, the Old Testament. You can look it up. Chapter 2001: Thou Art Cool…
Of those 1,617 words, only 40 are the actual defined word itself, or about 2.42%. So you can see the problem in trying to define what is essentially a highly variable idea or concept contained within a single word. But I thought I’d give it a try. Some people, perhaps ten, will say that attempting to do that is in itself “cool”. I would very much appreciate that.
Some people may go line by line through these pages and see if my own count of that word is actually correct.
Those people…are NOT “cool”.
There was an earlier story I wrote that is somewhat similar to this one which you may possibly enjoy:
Defining Blow: Not Necessarily a Bad Word, But Also to Annoy the French www.DifferentSlants.com/?p=1340 written August 27, 2011
Robert M. Katzman’s other life when not writing here:
www.oldzines.com — 100,000 magazines back to 1576 for birthdays, etc in Downtown Skokie,Il 50,000 posters @ $10 ea. One of 4 remaining stores in the USA, and very cool to see
www.Differentslants.com — My non-fiction story site. I’m a Chicago writer with 5 books in print and over 6,000 sold. No charge and I get hired by organizations to read my stories and poetry.
I am seeking representation as a writer/speaker if some brave person is interested.
www.FightingWordsPubco.com — My book site shows all my book covers. Click on the covers and you can read the reviews.