Appeal of 'cool' never turns tepid

January 04, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

Now and then, the words nifty or groovy may drop into a conversation, instantly identifying the speaker as an old fogy or, worse, an old hippie.

But the word cool doesn't do that. Cool is constant. As a modifier, as the modified, as a noun and as a verb, cool has withstood the fleeting nature of most slang.

What is the reason for cool's longevity? That's an easy question for Keith Covington, owner of the New Haven Lounge in North Baltimore and jazz expert. As long as Miles Davis' classic 1949 work, Birth of the Cool, remains the best-selling jazz album of all time, cool will stay cool, he says.

Cool still "carries the same weight and definition that it did 50 years ago," Covington says. "Jazz musicians and jazz aficionados still refer to great works as cool."

Cool comes in many flavors. Actress Kirsten Dunst, for instance, isn't cool the way Miles Davis is cool. And yet, in a recent Elle profile, the word cool, used to describe the young actress, is a constant refrain, as in "Kirsten Dunst is inherently, organically, preternaturally cool. She's 'None of my friends are actresses' cool. Catholic schoolgirl cool.' " And on and on.

Cool has been around for quite a while. Shakespeare used a form of cool as a verb, and later the word morphed into an adjective, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The word cool has been applied since 1728 to large sums of money and used to mean calmly audacious since 1825, the same source maintains. Cool, meaning fashionable, is "said to have been popularized in jazz circles by tenor saxophonist Lester Young," according to the etymology dictionary.

Of the word cool, "I can say one thing about it; it has not stood still," says Donna Jo Napoli, a Swarthmore College professor of linguistics.

When she was growing up, cool meant wow!, says Napoli, also the author of young adult novels and the mother of five. Today, cool is used more often to mean, "OK, I'm fine with that," Napoli says. In other words, "I'm cool with that."

As Napoli suggests, cool gets around. There's "way cool," "cool beans," "That's cool," "Keep your cool" and "too cool."

Cool is an example of an "underspecified word," Napoli says. The less specific a word, the more meanings it can have. Assassinate is an example of a "highly determined" word, one that can't be used in too many contexts, she says. The more unspecified a word is, the more staying power it has, she says.

But the question remains: What makes cool so cool? Benn Ray, manager of Atomic Books in Hampden, gives the matter some thought. "Here's what I think it is," he says: "The reason the word cool has remained cool [is that] the people who have helped to establish that word were cool. Their coolness was permanent, as opposed to people who used words like peachy, nifty or keen."

It's the difference between a very cool James Dean and a trendy but most uncool teeny-bopper, Ray says. "The icons who used the word, or were associated with it, have remained cool."

Cool, over the years, has trickled into the vocabulary of a range of folks, some cool, some not so cool, Ray notes. "We hear it all the time from people of all ages and different groups. ... You might see some Satanists in here using cool, or Goth kids using the word cool, and then someone from Roland Park using the word cool. It's a staple in our language. I don't think it's going anywhere."

"It's amazing that [cool] is still around," says Robert Beard, chief executive officer of yourDictionary.com and a retired professor of linguistics at Bucknell University. "When I was in high school some 40 years ago, I was a cool cat because I played with a musical organization called the Catbird Combo and we were cool."

Beard attributes cool's staying power to its connection to jazz. "Jazz won't go away," so "cool won't go away," he says.

It's not clear whether cool has a place in the lexicon of contemporary popular music. Camay Murphy, director of the Eubie Blake Cultural Center in Baltimore and daughter of a consummately cool musician, the late Cab Calloway, has heard kids into hip-hop use the word. "It's just a frequently used word to express something that's relatively good, or a good surprise," Murphy says.

Musicians of the atmospheric downtempo school, an amalgam of trip-hop, ambient and other genres, "refer to their product as cool quite a bit," Covington says.

For several Baltimore high school students, though, cool has been eclipsed. When a friend says she's making plans to do something fun, Alayne Francis, a 16-year-old City College High School junior, will signal her approval by saying, "That's what's up" or "That's the business."

Francis' friend, Eleeshabah Yahudah, a City College senior, also 16, agrees that cool no longer serves her young friends in the African-American community. You don't hear it on television shows featuring African-Americans, either, Yahudah says. Actors "don't say 'cool' on TV unless they're acting white."

Larry Jeter, 49, sees the word differently from high school kids. Cool is a universal, evergreen word whose use transcends race and gender, says the jazz drummer and owner of Dimensions in Music in downtown Baltimore.

Why?

"Because it rolls off your tongue, baby. You can put some bass in it, some treble. Some words can't do that," Jeter says.

What's coolest of all, he says, is that cool doesn't "have any date on it at all. It's like a good piece of music. You can listen to it 10 years from now, and it will still sound the same."

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