Query: Slang "Cool!" in 1868?

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Nov 22 21:03:11 UTC 2011

I did some hard thinking about this ex. of "cool" when I read _The
Moonstone_ about twenty years ago.

I concluded that it could only have meant "calmly impudent or
self-assured."  My article on "cool" in the _Atlantic_ in 1994
suggested that just this sort of context - where the self-assurance
might be thought admirably daring - might have contributed to the
development of the American slang term.

IAC, the possibility that Collins was using "cool" in the modern sense
in 1868 may be dismissed. He was not a slangy writer: his serious
characters speak standard English. If he intended "cool" to have a
radically novel sense, he (or his editor) would have put in italics -
or italics plus quotation marks; an authorial comment on such a daring
usage would also have been fitting.

It is also the case that no unambiguous exx. of modern "cool" have
been found at so early a date. That such a sense should have appeared
in print in England in 1868, without authorial comment and leaving no
trace, only to be rediscovered in America decades later taxes my

(Note: the first time I typed that, it came out "crudility." Feel free
to use in your own life.)


On Tue, Nov 22, 2011 at 3:06 PM, Ben Zimmer
<bgzimmer at babel.ling.upenn.edu> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Ben Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Query: Slang "Cool!" in 1868?
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> The example from Wilkie Collins was discussed here last year, when
> George Thompson brought our attention to a debate over "cool" in the
> letters to the editor section of TLS. I agreed with George's point
> that the Collins usage (like the 1860 Abraham Lincoln usage that also
> came up in the TLS discussion) fits the "audaciously impudent" meaning
> of the time and is a red herring when considering the more modern
> "cool." See my On Language column for more:
> http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/magazine/30FOB-onlanguage-t.html
> --bgz
> On Tue, Nov 22, 2011 at 2:09 PM, Baker, John wrote:
>>        I have not read The Moonstone, but I take Mr. Bruff's comment to imply
>> that the narrator's plan embodies the calm temperament and discretion that,
>> I infer from the passage, he has not previously displayed.  The effect, in other
>> words, is much as if Mr. Bruff had said "Audacious!" (although I sense he
>> seeks calmness rather than audacity).
>> -----Original Message-----
>> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Cohen, Gerald Leonard
>> Sent: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 12:23 PM
>> Subject: Query: Slang "Cool!" in 1868?
>> Dear ads-l members,
>> I've received a query from Lewis Porter (Rutgers U. Professor of Music) concerning slang
>> "cool." He found what seems to be an example of this from 1868 and is wondering
>> about its validity.  Barry Popik and George Thompson have already provided some
>> input to him, and I suggested he should write to ads-l as a whole.  At his
>> request I now forward his query to you.  Jonathan, Jesse, would you have any
>> thoughts on this?
>> Here is the message he sent me (in the quoted 1868 passage "Cool" comes
>> in the next-to-last paragraph).
>> > Hello Gerald,
>> > I trust you're well. George Thompson sent me some resources on this
>> > but I thought I'd run it past you as well. Now I've been looking into
>> > the word "cool." Prior to ca.1940, when it
>> > started to mean "Good" or "I agree!" in black jazz parlance, it had
>> > among its meanings "unflappable, calm in the face of danger," etc. BUT
>> > what do you make of the passage from The Moonstone (1868, Britain)
>> > pasted below? It certainly seems that in this case, contrary to what
>> > one would expect in this time and place, the word "cool" here means
>> > "Good!"
>> >
>> > I realize that it is more sensible to try and understand this in light
>> > of the current uses of "cool" in play in 1868, rather than as an
>> > isolated instance of a meaning not found elsewhere until 75 years
>> > later. I guess it would make more sense to try and interpret it as
>> > meaning "unflappable," etc. But I just couldn't see how the
>> > "unflappable" use applied here--specifically because the black use of
>> > it is often given as a one word exclamatory sentence--"Cool!"--whereas
>> > I know of no other instance of the "unflappable" meaning used as an
>> > exclamation--in fact it's quite odd to exclaim "Audacious!" when what
>> > is meant is "That would be quite audacious of you if you were to
>> > coolly do that"!!
>> >
>> > What do you think?
>> > All the best,
>> > Lewis
>> >
>> > Lewis Porter, Ph.D.
>> > Professor of Music/Jazz Pianist
>> > Director of the M.A. Program in Jazz History and Research
>> > Rutgers University
>> > Newark, NJ
>> > Lewisporter.com
>> > P.S.
>> > Here is the passage from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868; p342
>> > in my copy of the "revised"-really just fixed typos etc-1871 edition):
>> >
>> > "This is how it stands," he said. "I tell you fairly, I don't trust your
>> > discretion, and I don't trust your temper. But I do trust in Rachel's
>> > still preserving, in some remote little corner of her heart, a certain
>> > perverse weakness for YOU. Touch that--and trust to the consequences for
>> > the fullest disclosures that can flow from a woman's lips! The question
>> > is--how are you to see her?"
>> >
>> > "She has been a guest of yours at this house," I answered. "May I
>> > venture to suggest--if nothing was said about me beforehand--that I
>> > might see her here?"
>> >
>> > "Cool!" said Mr. Bruff. With that one word of comment on the reply that
>> > I had made to him, he took another turn up and down the room.
>> >
>> > "In plain English," he said, "my house is to be turned into a trap to
>> > catch Rachel; with a bait to tempt her, in the shape of an invitation
>> > from my wife and daughters. If you were anybody else but Franklin Blake,
>> > and if this matter was one atom less serious than it really is, I should
>> > refuse point-blank. As things are, I firmly believe Rachel will live
>> > to thank me for turning traitor to her in my old age. Consider me your
>> > accomplice. Rachel shall be asked to spend the day here; and you shall
>> > receive due notice of it."
>> >
>> > END
>> > My occasional blog of my new jazz research:
>> > https://www.wbgo.org/blog/category/20877
>> >
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
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> --
> Ben Zimmer
> http://benzimmer.com/
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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