Some academics have been aflutter since University of Rochester Medical Center psychologist Ilan Dar-Nimrod announced that the definition of cool has evolved to mean “nice to people, attractive, confident and successful.”
In Coolness: An Empirical Investigation, the Rochester Medical Center psychologist points out that the post-World War II definition of coolness included “rebelliousness, emotional control, toughness, thrill-seeking and generally doing things the way the individual desired.”
Let me confess that I didn’t read the paper, averse as I am to academic titles bearing colons, though I did scan some of the blog commentary and surfed the web. (Is that still cool to say?) I also conducted a randomized empirical investigation of three generations of my family and their friends. All without funding.
In addition to the traditional temperature definition, my parents and their peers, who were word-coining teens during the war, used the term to imply a calm confidence, as in “cool as a cucumber” or “cool, calm and collected.” So Ilan should consider “emotional control, toughness” as part of a definition that goes further back.
Actually, “cool as a cucumber” comes from the first American pioneers, according to the online etymology dictionary. The expression started after the Jamestown colonists discovered that a field cucumber was much cooler inside than outside. Science has since confirmed this. This fact also explains why cucumber slices reduce under-eye puff.
The “attractive, successful” part of Ilan’s new definition goes back to the 1930s, when jazz musicians started to use cool as slang for “fashionable.”
I have a hunch that Ilan is a boomer, like me, who feels nostalgia for the subversive twist of the post-war definition. When I was teenager, cool was a way of contrasting what was fresh and original, maybe revolutionary, from our identical houses in the cookie-cutter suburbs.
Scarred by depression and war, most of our parents were soothed by this sameness. My friends and I weren’t. We strived to be cool.
My teens and their friends frequently use all the definitions of cool, from “fashionable” to “nice to people, attractive, confident and successful” and “rebelliousness, emotional control, toughness, thrill-seeking and generally doing things the way the individual desired.” From their tone and the context, I can easily understand which meaning they choose.
The less articulate teens, and boomers too, overuse cool to describe what’s fashionable or attractive. Like awesome, this spin on cool has become an easy catch-all. Fortunately, some people want to improve. In recent months, people seeking alternatives to cool have turned up in my search results, probably egged on by the ongoing popularity of my awesome post. Many of the 55 alternatives to tired awesome would work for the mundane interpretation of cool.
But I can’t provide a list of alternatives that would embrace its full reach. When you want to express “rebelliousness, emotional control, toughness, thrill-seeking and generally doing things the way the individual desired,” cool is your word.
Long live cool.
Thanks for the photo, Andy2boyz.