the great "cool" debate

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Sun Apr 4 22:04:05 UTC 2010

        A discussion has been raging since January in the TLS (formerly Times Literary Supplement) on the history of the "contemporary sense" of the word "cool".  (There's an antedating here for those who persevere to the end.)

        On January 1, Toby Lichtig had reviewed a translation of a novel called Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb, first published in Hungarian in 1937.  He was pleased by the novel -- indeed, it sounds worth reading -- and the translation, "despite the odd anachronism ("cool" is used in its contemporary sense. . . )"  He didn't say which contemporary sense he had in mind.  Earlier in the review, he had said it "opens with a cool mixture of wit and intrigue".  (p. 20)
        There has followed a series of letters (always on p. 6) from people who, like me, haven't read the novel.  But neither have they read the entry on "cool" in HDAS, nor the entry in OED, which has been revised out of sequence -- it covers the expression "too cool for school", not used in Jimmy Murray's youth, I believe, and cites the edition of the original scroll of Kerouac's On the Road, from 2007.
        Letters of January 29 and February 19 quote The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins, 1868) and Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union speech (1860), both using the word with the sense of "impudent" (OED's sense 2d, from 1723; HDAS's sense 1).  A letter of February 26 quibbles with the February 19 letter.
        On March 5 a letter quotes T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1935), referring to Arab "great men" thought to be fomenting a revolt:  "The first, the Sherif of Mecca, we knew to be too aged.  I found Abdulla too clever, Ali to clean, Zeid too cool."  The letter writer wonders which nuance of the sense "impudent" shown by Collins and Lincoln did Lawrence have in mind.  On March 26, a letter calls attention to a passage a few pages further on: "Zeid was a shy, white, beardless lad of perhaps nineteen, calm and flippant, no zealot for the revolt."  So this "cool" seems to be OED's 3a, lacking in fervour, which it finds in Beowulf.
        A letter of March 26 quotes a manual from 1848 for the attendants at the Boston Lunatic Hospital, requiring them to "keep cool" when dealing with misbehaving patients, and similar instructions in a manual from a Hospital for the Insane in Tennessee, from 1859.  The writer asks "Might the idea of keeping cool have originated in "lunatic" hospitals?"  This is OED's 2a, not affected by passion or emotion; controlled. The OED traces it to Beowulf also -- though it's true that the specific expression "keep cool" first appears in a 1890 passage.
        Finally, a letter from Allan Peskin contributes something of interest.  "In 1881, President James A. Garfield's teenage daughter, Mollie, wrote to a friend about her girlish crush on her father's private secretary, Joseph Stanley-Brown.  "Isn't he cool! she gushed.  Considering that she would marry him as soon as she came of age, she could hardly have been using "cool" to convey [impudent]."  This is presumably OED's 8a (HDAS 2): sophisticated, stylish, which both dictionaries date to 1918 -- HDAS first item from the U. S is 1924.  HDAS's quotations from 1924, 1925 & 1944 are all from black sources; its quotations from 1944 (2nd) and 1945 from military sources.  Mollie must have been a cool chick.
        The latest issue I've received is that of April 2.  A letter quotes a letter from 1866, referring to "D. G. Rossetti's relationship with Janey Morris".  "Of course, a woman under such circumstances, before people, is a closed book, still I think she is cool."  The letter explains "Here the word refers to Jane's self-composure."  OED 2a again.
        This issue also brings us a cool letter from Hugh Brogan, who is "surprised that no one has yet dug up the anecdote that when the young Richard Monckton Milnes . . first presented himself in London drawing rooms in 1836, his "ebullience and self-confidence" . . . earned him the sobriquet "The Cool of the Evening"."   I'm sure we are all surprised.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

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