Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cool Roots

Whenever my students ask me, "Professor Moore, how did you get to be so cool?" I know how to answer. Actually none of my students has asked me that yet, but I'm pretty sure it's what a lot of them are thinking.

Anyway, my answer would be that being cool comes from spending hour after hour in the library reading books. At least that was true in my case.

It all started in 1993 when I noticed my five-year-old daughter and her friends using the slang term "cool" to describe things they especially liked. Since this is the same hip term of approval I started using around 1965, it struck me that slang might not consist of fly-by-night terms that come and go with dizzying speed, as everyone seems to assume.

So, I decided to track down the history of "cool" even if it meant spending long, grueling hours in the library reading racy Beatnik novels, old Snoopy comics, and vintage high school yearbooks.

Joe Cool

And here's what I found: Swell used to be cool.

Believe it or not, corny old swell was the happenin' slang term of the Roaring Twenties. Having lingered lazily in the English language for over a century, it suddenly burst on the scene around 1920 with attitude written all over it. It defined the rebellious youth culture of that era, a culture fueled by women's rights and anti-Victorian passions that had young people dancing exuberantly and (to the horror of the older generation) engaging in petting parties.

And swell had staying power. Like cool, it hung on for decades as the number one slang term of approval. Its bad boy image hung on with it. In an "I Love Lucy" episode of 1952, Lucy hires a diction coach who tells her and Ethel that there are two words they should always avoid in their speech, "One of them is swell," he says, "and the other one is lousy." To which Lucy replies, "OK, what are they?"

But in the mid 1960s swell was transmogrified from the rebellious to the cornball. This was because the sixties, like the twenties, witnessed the rise of a rambunctious youth culture that broke with parental traditions bringing with it a new, all-purpose slang term: cool.

Modern cool was born in African-American culture and originally referred to a knowing, standoffish pose used as a defense against racism. Where swell in the 1920s was all anti-Victorian hedonism, cool embodied an attitude of knowing self-control or hipness. In fact, this attitude still endures as the core meaning of cool, and it's what keeps this term fresh and alive. Saying "cool" pays homage, on some barely conscious level, to that knowing and self-controlled pose first patented in African-American jazz circles.

Given the acceptance of the new value system by mainstream youth, the motto of the baby-boomer generation might well be, "We're cool, Mom and Dad are swell."

It's easy to trace the cool rebellion that replaced swell as the bad boy of slang right in your own home. If you have an old high school yearbook lying around, take a look at your friends' signed dedications. Chances are that if you graduated before 1964, some of those signatures will use the word swell, as in "Best wishes to a swell guy!"

If your yearbook signatures date from 1967 or later, these swell references will be largely replaced with cool ones: "We sure had some cool times in Mr. Flatt's home room!"

So swell and cool each arose by being tied to the key values of a new youth culture, and lasted for decades because each identified its users with those values. Though I haven't done the hours of grueling research required to prove it, I suspect that "bully" was also the value-rich slang term of its day.

Remember Theodore Roosevelt's reference to the presidency as "a bully pulpit?" "Bully" then had the same cocky, informal quality that swell and cool later picked up, and Teddy Roosevelt apparently used this word in order to sound like a man of the people.

                              TR and his Bully Pulpit

To create the same effect in the 1940s, Franklin Roosevelt would have called the presidency "a swell pulpit."  Bill Clinton, no doubt, would have slipped his saxophone aside just long enough to say, "The presidency?  It's a cool pulpit."

      Clinton's Cool Pulpit

And, just as in 1965, the prototypical image of cool today is the African-American male in shades with an expression that gives nothing away.

       Thelonious Monk

(This item originally appeared in the Rollins College Sandspur. Original research is in American Speech, Volume 79 - Spring 2004 .)

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