what make it so cool (was Re: Zimmer Linguistlist)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sat Sep 13 19:40:10 UTC 2008

On Sat, Sep 13, 2008 at 2:09 PM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at gmail.com> wrote:
> Ben wrote:
[ http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0802B&L=ADS-L&P=R2259 ]
>> "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":
>> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0509D&L=ADS-L&P=R12869
>> 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[.]"
> Once again, I may be missing the point, as I'm subject to do and which
> has been pointed out elsewhere, but it seems to me that Ben's question
> was whether, in the phrase, "whut make it so cool," used in print by
> Hurston over the course of a dekkid ending in 1933, "cool" had
> essentially the same meaning that "cool" has in (more) modern slang.
> I suggest that it very likely did, given that the "unusual cleft
> construction," _whut make it so cool [(is that) S]_, is in no way
> unusual in BE, wherein it liveth and kicketh to this very day, both in
> Hurston's exact words and in minor variations such as, e.g. " And whut
> make it so dynamite, she got that fine behin'."
> I'm so accustomed to speaking and hearing such forms that it's not
> clear to me whether Ben meant to say that it's an unusual construction
> in Black English or that it's an unusual construction in standard
> English. And, of course, there still exists the possibility that I've
> simply altogether failed to understand what Ben was driving at.

Sorry to be less than clear, Wilson. I don't doubt that the
pseudo-cleft "what make it so ADJ..."  has been common in various BE
dialects both past and present. It's easy enough to find other
examples, like:

"And see, what make it so bad is that it seem like everybody lookin'
at us." -- Elijah Anderson, _A Place on the Corner_ (1978)
"And what make it so good, he say, I bought him with whitefolks'
money." -- Alice Walker, _The Color Purple_ (1982)

I also don't doubt that ZNH was documenting an actual usage and not
just a literary one. She was a careful ethnographer, as reflected in
_Mules and Men_, her gathering of folklore from Florida. And the
dialogue in her short stories is no doubt based on natural BE

My question was with the idea that ZNH's several exx of "what/whut
make it so cool..." could be the *only* pre-WWII attestations for
"cool" = 'admirable, excellent'. Why haven't we found it distributed
among other likely sources from the era, using either the pseudo-cleft
or other constructions? Where are the missing links between ZNH and
the jazz usage attributed originally to Lester Young and his circle of
musicians? And if ZNH was the pioneer in recording the then-new sense
of "cool", why doesn't she mention it in the slang glossary at the end
of her 1942 "Story in Harlem Slang" (which does include, for instance,
"cold" as an intensifier)?

It still seems a bit mysterious to me. I'd be more comfortable
interpreting the ZNH exx as continuing the 'audacious' tradition
(e.g., Abraham Lincoln's 1860 Cooper Union Address, where he says of
secessionist demands, "That is cool"). But perhaps I'm alone in this
view. The new OED entry for "cool" separates 'admirable, excellent'
into subsense 8b (see the "cool kind" thread for subsense 8a,
"attractively shrewd or clever [etc.]"), and ZNH is given the first

  8b. Originally in African-American usage: (as a general term of
approval) admirable, excellent. Cf. HOT adj. 12c.
  Popularized among jazz musicians and enthusiasts in the late 1940s;
cf. sense A. 2e , cool cat n. at Special uses 2.
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. 1950 Neurotica Autumn
46 This is a cool pad man. 1951 Newsweek 8 Oct. 28/3 If you like a guy
or gal, they're cool. If they are real fat, real crazy, naturally
they're real cool. [etc.]

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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