the great "cool" debate

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Sun May 30 07:16:03 UTC 2010

FWIW, I'm persuaded.


On Fri, May 28, 2010 at 11:27 PM, Benjamin Zimmer
<bgzimmer at> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: the great "cool" debate
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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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