the great "cool" debate

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sat May 29 03:27:33 UTC 2010

My latest On Language column is on the TLS "cool" debate:

Many thanks to George Thompson and the other participants in the ADS-L
thread for the inspiration.

You can also catch me rambling about "cool" on WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show":

And there's even more on "cool" in my latest Word Routes column:

--Ben Zimmer

On Sun, Apr 4, 2010 at 6:34 PM, Benjamin Zimmer
<bgzimmer at> wrote:
> 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

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