For a hot summer day, the New York Times brings us the history of “cool”
Already by the time of “Beowulf,” a millennium ago, the original low-temperature meaning of cool had veered into the realm of human emotion — or rather the lack thereof. From Old English to the ages of Chaucer and Shakespeare all the way to the present, cool has been able to mean “dispassionate, calm, self-composed.” Some of our latter-day cool expressions — “stay cool,” “play it cool,” “cool as a cucumber,” “cool customer” — play off this ancient connotation of implacability.
By the early 18th century, emotional coolness had branched off in another direction: “assured and unabashed where diffidence and hesitation would be expected,” as the O.E.D. has it. This impudent style of cool — no longer in common usage — is the one that turns up in the examples from Abraham Lincoln and Wilkie Collins given by the T.L.S. readers. Lincoln’s line, “That is cool,” from his 1860 speech at Cooper Union, was a response to the audacity of secessionist demands. Collins, likewise, has a character in his 1868 novel, “The Moonstone,” say, “Cool!” when presented with an insolent request. In both cases, cool was used disapprovingly, quite distinct from later, more positive uses.
Those early instances of cool are easy enough to explain, but what of the intriguing contribution to the T.L.S. colloquy from Allan Peskin, a biographer of President James A. Garfield? Peskin found an 1881 letter by Garfield’s teenage daughter Mollie to a friend, telling of her crush on her father’s private secretary, Joseph Stanley-Brown. “Isn’t he cool!” Mollie gushed in the letter. The “audaciously impudent” sense of cool wouldn’t seem to work here, since, as Peskin points out, Mollie went on to marry Stanley-Brown when she came of age. Could Mollie have been ahead of her time, already using cool to mean “sophisticated, stylish” or “admirable, excellent”?
Though it would be indubitably cool to find a hidden connection between schoolgirl talk of the 1880s and later hipster slang, my best guess is that Mollie was describing her future husband with the older “cool, calm and collected” nuance. “As a private secretary,” Peskin told me when I asked about Mollie’s letter, “Stanley-Brown demonstrated the customary diffidence that was expected of someone in his position.” Still, Peskin said he finds it difficult to believe that a teenage girl would be infatuated with a man for being dispassionate. read more