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A word that seems frozen in fashion

Baltimore Sun

Now and then the words “nifty” or “groovy” might 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, jazz expert and owner of the New Haven Lounge in Baltimore. As long as Miles Davis’ classic 1949 work, “Birth of the Cool,” remains the bestselling 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.’ ”

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“Cool” comes in many flavors. Kirsten Dunst, for instance, isn’t cool the way Miles Davis is cool. And yet in a recent Elle magazine 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 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.”

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As Napoli suggests, “cool” gets around. There’s “way cool,” “cool beans,” “that’s 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, Md., 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.’ ”

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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.”

“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 hip-hop kids use the word. “It’s just a frequently used word to express something that’s relatively good, or a good surprise,” Murphy says.

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Musicians of the atmospheric down-tempo 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 black community. You don’t hear it on television shows featuring blacks 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.

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“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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