Thoughts on "cool"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Feb 11 01:42:06 UTC 2008

On Feb 10, 2008 6:58 PM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at> wrote:
> On 2/9/08, Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at> wrote:
> > -----
> > 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.
> Ben, your analysis of the usage cited here strikes me as a real
> stretch. I don't even understand what your motivation is for
> bothering.
> 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.

My motivation was only to figure out if this quote belongs with the
later ones for the modern sense of "cool". If "cooler" is intended to
be read here as 'more stylish', then it would definitely fit. But
"cool" = 'stylish' doesn't seem to have taken off for another four
decades, give or take, so it would be an unusual outlier if that's
indeed the intended reading.

To be honest, I hadn't really taken the last line about the porter
into consideration, Wilson, so I appreciate your insight. I would've
figured it was just supposed to present an incongruous or unexpected
image, just as wearing clothes that are "cooler" than satins would
work against expectations of regal dress. I can see how either 'more
comfortable' or 'more stylish' clothes could be understood as
unexpected for a king, who's supposed to wear uncomfortable/unstylish
satins. I just don't see the 'stylish' reading as the preferable one
if the 'comfortable' reading works just as well -- and would work even
better according to Occam's Razor, since there would be no four-decade
gap in "cool" = 'stylish' to explain.

By the time of this cite, I think the 'stylish' reading is much more plausible:

> -----
> 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!
> -----

But maybe there really is a straight line from 1902 to 1939 to beyond,
and I'm just overthinking things.

---Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list