the great "cool" debate

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sun Apr 4 22:34:45 UTC 2010

On Sun, Apr 4, 2010 at 6:04 PM, George Thompson <george.thompson at> wrote:
>        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.)
>        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.

We have to take Peskin's word on this, since the only reference I can
find to Mollie's letter is in Peskin's own biography of Garfield. We
would, of course, want to know the context of Mollie's remark --
without any further information, I don't see why this couldn't fall
under OED's sense 2d ("assured and unabashed where diffidence and
hesitation would be expected; composedly and deliberately audacious or
impudent in making a proposal, demand, or assumption," from 1723). Why
couldn't she have been impressed by her suitor's audacity?

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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