Thoughts on "cool"

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Sun Feb 10 23:58:15 UTC 2008

Ben, your analysis of the usage cited here strikes me as a real
stretch. I don't even understand what your motivation is for

It seems to me that the last line takes "cool" right back to style and
away from comfort. _A porter with (not necessarily literally) a ring
stuck through his nose_ would be so cool that he wouldn't be
recognized as a porter.

There's a version of Clarence Carter's 'Fifties R&B song, "I Ain't Got
You" that has the verse:

"_I got a closet full of clothes_
"And everywhere I goes
"_I keeps a ring in my nose_"

An again no-doubt-figurative ring in one's nose as a sign of being
well-dressed fifty years after your cite indicating the same thing?
Mere coincidence? I don't know. There are about 150 or more *recorded*
versions of this song. Carter's was the first recording to go national
and he claims authorship. Did he pull the bit about the nose ring out
of his ass or was it something traditional floating in the air in
black Alabama where he was born that he merely incorporated into his
song? Again, I don't know.

But, as Fernando noted:

"It's better to look good than to feel good."


On 2/9/08, Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
> Subject:      Thoughts on "cool"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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
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