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Q From Stephanie Matthews: I’m interested in the history of the word cool as a slang word. Apparently it was first used in the musical West Side Story by Bernstein. Is this true? Can you enlighten me any further?

A Cool has had several meanings, nearly all of them older than West Side Story. Its history is more than a little complicated, because several of its senses overlap, and it’s hard to be sure when the rather ill-defined modern slang term came into the language. Also, it’s not always possible to understand how it was being used in some older examples.

One slang sense is “controlled, cautious or discreet”, which was fashionable in the early 1950s in the phrase stay cool. This is first recorded near the end of the nineteenth century, but it’s really a subtle transformation of a standard English form that goes back to Beowulf, in a rather literary metaphor for being unexcited, calm or dispassionate. This turned up in the eighteenth century in the slangy expression cool as a cucumber that is still with us, and in the mainstream language as keeping a cool head — being unemotional or in total command of oneself.

Some researchers suggest that at about the same time a second sense grew out of this standard English meaning, to refer to something that was superlative, exciting or enjoyable (or less strongly, something merely satisfactory or acceptable). The older English meaning was sometimes rather negative, since to be unemotional and in control might imply you were also withdrawn or depressed, lacking warmth, or unenthusiastic (as in someone getting “a cool reception”). Black American English, it is suggested, could have turned this on its head to make something cool its very opposite. If this is true, it would be the first example of a type of slang construction common in modern American Black English — for example bad or wicked. This use of cool only really caught on in the 1930s, but is still common (and is well known, for example, among young people in Britain as well as America, even though a few now insist on spelling it kewl).

This overlaps somewhat with another slang sense, recorded from the beginning of the nineteenth century, that referred to somebody who was assured, audacious or impudent. This turned up in phrases like a cool customer or a cool fish and is also recorded in American English from the 1840s onwards. Yet a fourth sense, of something sophisticated or fashionable, is first recorded from the middle 1940s but is probably rather older. (There are other senses, but let’s not make an already complicated story even more difficult to understand.)

Elements of all these ideas came together in the jazz world in the 1940s, especially in cool jazz — for example Charlie Parker’s Cool Blues of 1947; jazz aficionados used the term to distinguish this style from the hot jazz then in vogue, but also with undertones of at least some of these earlier meanings. It’s with jazz that the slang term was most closely associated and out of which it became more widely known throughout the English-speaking world. In the fifties cool could variously mean restrained, relaxed, laid-back, detached, cerebral, stylish, excellent, or other affirmative things. It became the keyword of the Beat generation and in the 1960s it moved into teen slang — where it has largely stayed.

What is surprising about cool is how long it has been around. Even if you ignore its pre-history, it has stayed in fashion for 50 years or more, a long time for a slang term. And it has remained slang, and not moved into the mainstream. Today it’s just as commonly encountered as it was in the fifties and sixties. Now that’s cool ...

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Page created 26 Aug 2000