Monday, August 2, 2010

How Cool Is This?

Would you believe that the term “cool” meaning “very good” or “fashionable” was in use as early as 700 A.D.?  Well, I wouldn’t either, but the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, written about that time, begins a long etymological path, down which “cool” evolved from a word for “moderately cold” into its current hip meaning. Courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary, here are four steps in that path, beginning with a few familiar lines in Old English:

1. “Cool” - Dispassionate, calm, composed (700):                        
            “Gyf him edwendan æfre scolde
            bealuwa bisigu bot eft cuman,
            ond þa cearwylmas colran wurða…”
                (“If evil woes should ever retreat, and comfort 
                follows, and seething sorrow turns cool [colran]…”  
               Beowulf, ca. 700)

            “Such seething braines…that apprehend more
            Than cool reason ever comprehends” (Shakespeare,  
            Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1600)
            “A man of understanding is of an excellent cool spirit.” 
            (Authorized Version of the Bible, 1611)
            “The bloody actor is less detestable than the cool       
            unfeeling historian.” (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of  
            the Roman Empire, 1781)
            “While she wept, I strove to be cool.” (Tennyson,  
            Maud, 1855)

            “Don’t get stampeded.  Just keep cool…” (King,  
            Stampede Pass, 1890)

2. “Cool” - Attractively shrewd or clever; sophisticated, stylish, classy; fashionable, up to date; sexually attractive (1884):

            “Dat’s cool!” (J. A. Harrison, Negro English in Anglia, 

            “A cool kid” (Bodleian Quarterly Record, 1918)

            “She was a cool put-together chick that made men 
            thrill.” (Frank Loesser, "Hamlet," 1949)
3. “Cool” - A general term of approval, admirable, excellent (1933):           
            “And whut make it so cool, he got money 'cumulated.  
             And womens give it all to 'im." (Zora Neale Hurston,  
             Story, 1933)
            “This is a cool pad, man.” (Neurotica, 1950)

            “These jeans are so cool.” (Anne Beattie, Falling in 
            Place, 1981)

4. “Cool” - And, finally, in a diminished sense, to mean satisfactory, OK, acceptable, safe (1951)

            “He [the marijuana dealer] was absurdly cautious. ‘Got
             to look out for myself, things ain't cool this past 
             week.’” (Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1951)

            “He had seen Devon in the street and hid from him, 
            unable to smile in his face and say that everything 
            was cool.” (Gareth Joseph, Homegrown, 2001)

“Cool” is not one of the words that come to mind to describe the Bard of Buffalo Bayou.  “Scary” is more apt, especially when he’s caught red-handed in the act of poiesis.
            Cool or hot? That question may seem dotty.
            Although truly,
            Wouldn’t you prefer to be a hottie
            Than a coolie?           

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