Thoughts on "cool"

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Mon Feb 11 17:52:25 UTC 2008

Several things rules out the 1902 "cool" in my view:

  1. It is ambiguous; it could be understood as "cool" in the plain sense.  The possible ambiguity doesn't automatically rule it out, however.

  2. But it is always wise to be skeptical of a "first appearance" that is ambiguous, esp. when the "second appearance" is thirty or more years in the future (in the modern era and despite the efforts of HDAS and OED) and there is no question of self-censorship involved.

  3. The fact that it appears as a rhyme in a popular song increases the likelihood that it's just the comfort-related "cool"; maybe the lyricist needed a handy rhyme for "rule" in the context of clothing. Again, not decisive but another minor count against it.

  4. The lyricists do not enclose "cool" in quotes, which was the usual practice at the time when using a novel term that might not be understood.  Personally, I think this is an important point, though again not decisive.

  5. The modern use of "cool" was universally associated with swing and bebop, musical genres whose exponents and fans were noted for their use of slangy neologisms.  The ragtime era of 1902 was not so noted.

  6.  Paul Lawrence Dunbar (Who I assume is the "P. L. Dunbar" mentioned, was America's foremost black poet in 1902.  If he used the word here, surely he should have used it elsewhere in his works.  Have these been examined? (Undoubtedly the 1884 "cool" got into the OED despite its clear ambiguity mainly because it appeared in AAVE.)

  7. There is no reason at the present to believe the 1902 lyricist had any special access to
  then-esoteric black slang.  If the song was written in NYC, one should recall that the vibrant African-American Harlem community that supported the swing culture of the '30s did not exist in 1902.

  On the other side of the ledger, in favor of a modern sense of "cool," all I can see is that the
   sense fits the context, though not to the exclusion of the plain sense.

  My opinion is that it is unlikely that this "cool" is a modern "cool."  If it is, then at least one or two clearer exx. should be findable long before 1939.  If they are, the issue can be revisited.

  (I can hardly believe Wilson and I seem to disagree on a language issue. Is this a first for ADS-L? Or shouldn't I ask?)


  Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Benjamin Zimmer
Subject: Re: Thoughts on "cool"

On Feb 10, 2008 6:58 PM, Wilson Gray wrote:
> On 2/9/08, Benjamin Zimmer 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

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