the great "cool" debate

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Mon Apr 5 11:34:34 UTC 2010

Ben Zimmer writes: Why couldn't she [Mollie Garfield] have been impressed by her suitor's audacity?
Perhaps so.  The letter to TLS gives the writer's street address, and I will write to ask his source

Victor Steinbok writes: It seems a part of the problem in TLS is that a lot of people are
talking at cross purposes and not really identifying the same item.
Given the snippets of the review--not having read either the book or
the review--I have no idea what the reviewer was complaining about as
being anachronistic.
I thought I made it clear that the reviewer didn't indicate what sense of "cool" he had in mind.  It's also clear that just about all of the likely meanings were current in the 1930s and earlier.

As for "people talking at cross purposes":
The moral of my posting was that mothers shouldn't let their children grow up to be lexicographers.  It may bring fame and great wealth, but in the end, the electrons their work is printed on will just gather dust, unused.  Here we have a discussion pursued in the most widely circulated intellectual/literary weekly in the English language -- in 7 of the last 10 or 11 issues?, I didn't keep score -- and none of the writers checked the OED.  If they had, they would have seen that the quotations they submitted, though recondite, some of them, illustrate meanings that are well documented for centuries.

Actually, until proven otherwise, I'm going to keep on thinking of Mollie Garfield as a hip chick on the mellow side.


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

----- Original Message -----
From: Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
Date: Sunday, April 4, 2010 6:45 pm
Subject: Re: the great "cool" debate

> 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.)
> [snip]
> >        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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