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I Was Sayin’ “Cool” When Sayin’ Cool Wasn’t Cool

By Jay Zimmer

You hear it everywhere these days. Cool! The Fonz was the Sultan of Cool. Popular music by L.L. Cool J.

“Cool” has become more than a word; it has taken on a life of its own. And like other, more inprintable words, it has a stand-along property that is defined in context and needs no list of definitions of its own.

It wasn’t always that way.

I spent many of my youthful summers through the mid-1950’s to the late 1960’s in the wilds of Chesapeake Bay Maryland with the Brant Boys – four brothers who were among my favorite cousins. Pat – the closest to me in age – was a major purveyor of “cool” in those days. It was a word he invoked frequently, and like his Maryland accent, I quickly picked it up.

“Cool,” in those days, meant a particular action that merited special kudos – being able to go back outside after dinner comes to mind. So does doing a particularly smooth dive into the brackish water that was our childhood playground. “Cool” was our favorite song on the radio. “Cool” was a particularly well-executed catch or pass done by older brothers Mike and Tim (who went on to be university of Maryland standouts – which is also cool!). “Cool” was the year’s new “hoopie talk,” that Dennis always introduced me to — such as calling each other ‘Hoss.’ “Cool” was whatever we liked at that moment.

That was “cool” when I was saying “cool.” It was a felicity of expression that was frowned upon by the older generation – beatnik-ish and unintelligible to the post-World-War II generation that spawned my Baby Boomer brothers and sisters – who once used that word as rebellion and expressive dignity for themselves. I still do, but my, how things have changed.

“Cool” has evolved into a many-faceted word over the decades since summering at Selby On The Bay was cool. “Cool” became an attitude, an intrinsic quality granted to an elite few. “Cool” became a look-the-other-way attitude toward wrongdoing, an untraceable street weapon, a score of an illicit substance and the attitude it took to make that score.

“Cool” is to stop what you’re doing – right now – as in “cool it!”

“Cool” is to calm down, especially from a rage – as in “be cool.”

“Cool” is a word that’s just plain fun to say – and it’s totally right for it to have taken on the mores of multiple generations. It is, for the most part, a positive expression, one that gives hope and perhaps a smile.

Words have always fascinated me, but few more than this little four-letter place-holder. I’m looking forward to seeing what connotations this simple word takes on as new generations discover it.

And that’s cool.

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