Thoughts on "cool"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sun Feb 10 04:54:50 UTC 2008

The OED entry for "cool" was revised in 2006 to incorporate earlier
citations for sense 4d, "As a general term of approval: admirable,
excellent; esp. sophisticated, stylish, 'classy'":

I'm wondering how well the early cites fit in with the familar
post-WWII sense of "cool". Here's the first one:

1884 J. A. HARRISON Negro Eng. in _Anglia_ 7 257 Interjections... Dat's cool!

The article "Negro English" lists "Dat's cool!" among a wide variety
of interjections, not all approbative. Here's what's visible in the
Google Books snippet view:

"Lor'! A mighty likely tale! Do please don't! Jes' lissen at him! W'y,
cose he did! Don't you bet! Comin', Lord Jesus! Blame my buttons! Oh
my! Dat's cool! Ef dis don't! Dribe away! Gred Jerichoes! Big doin's!
Plag'id imp! Jes' lemme tell yer! Heish! Ans'er me dis! Better min'
w'at yo' bout! Min' yo' eye! Well, den, you better!"

So I don't think there's anyway of knowing if "Dat's cool!" is an
expression of general approval, or say, a comment on a person's
assuredness or audacity (fitting OED's much earlier sense 6, as in
"cool hand", "cool customer", etc.).

Next cite is this one:

1902 E. P. MORAN & P. L. DUNBAR Evah Dahkey is King (song) in _N.Y.
Amer. & Jrnl._ 26 Oct. (Music Suppl.), When we's crowned we don't wear
satins, Kase de way we dress is cooler.

Here is the entire verse, or at least one version of it:

Evah dahkey has a lineage dat de white folks can't compete wid
An' a title, such as duke or earl, why we wouldn't wipe our feet wid
Fa a kingdom is our station, an' we's each a rightful ruler
When we's crowned we don't wear satins, Kase de way we dress is cooler. Ho!
But our power's jest as mighty, nevah judge kings by deir cloes
You could nevah tell a porter wid a ring stuck through his nose.

Again, given the context, I'm not sure this is a general term of
approval. The verse says that the regal dress of "dahkeys" would be
"cooler" than the satins worn by "white folks". Couldn't that just be
a straightforward use of OED sense 1c, "Producing a sensation of
coolness; not admitting or retaining heat; as 'a cool dress'"? And the
next line ("But our power's jest as mighty, nevah judge kings by deir
cloes") certainly goes against the idea that the "cooler" dress is
more admirable or excellent.

Next cite:

1933 Z. N. HURSTON in Story Aug. 63 And whut make it so cool, he got
money 'cumulated. And womens give it all to 'im.

I've already questioned whether Hurston's "whut make it so cool" (used
in her writings from 1933 to 1943) has any continuity with the later
sense of "cool":

As with the 1884 cite above, I think Hurston's usage could just as
easily fall under the older 'unabashed, audacious' sense. I'd be more
convinced it fit the modern sense if there were any later examples
following Hurst's pattern, with that unusual cleft construction. The
best candidate I've found so far is unfortunately illegible in a
couple of key places:

1938 _Atlanta Daily World_ 6 Dec. 3/ 4 The band's mistress of
ceremonies, Joan Lunceford, is one of the "smoothest articles" in
front of an orchestra you ever saw ... and such swing-singing! Many
call her the equal of the famous Blanch Calloway. And what [illegible]
cool is that she's as fe[illegible - feminine?] directing the band as
she'd be in an evening gown -- which is something.

I've been looking for examples of "cool" in Dan Burley's "Back Door
Stuff" column of the late '30s (published in the _New York Amsterdam
News_ and the _Chicago Defender_), and so far this is the most
relevant cite I've come across:

1939 _New York Amsterdam News_ 13 May 20/1 Ever see a Joseph's coat?
Well, it's multi-colored, but cool, Jack, cool! Ever see a Harlem cat
in one? It's a sight, Jack, a screamin' sight!

That's about clothing, but it sounds a lot more approbative than the
1902 song lyric. But it's notable that Burley, the jive expert, did
not use "cool" as a general term of approval in his column at the
time, which supports the idea that the word didn't become popular in
jazz circles until used by Lester "Pres" Young in the early '40s.

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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