Let me ask you something. How many times have you said “Cool” or “That’s so cool” today? I’ve probably muttered it to myself when going through my Twitter feed about fifty times this morning alone. But how did the word “cool” in itself grow to become… well, cool? I was thinking about this whilst brushing my teeth earlier, and decided to do a little reading.
The word “cool” has always been around. It’s been enjoying a very well-carved groove in the Oxford English Dictionary for yonks. In the past few generations, it has been used in all sorts of situations – from describing a moderately low temperature to a muted colour variation. Perhaps more recently, the word “cool” has been given a bit of a facelift – we now use it to signify a verbal nod of approval, or to describe an aloof, indifferent manner. Of course, I’m a millennial – these definitions of cool don’t have any significant undertones of change or history to me. But it’s still an interesting question – where did it all come from?
The most significant era of cool as a cultural phenomenon was arguably in America at the end of World War II. Specifically within the black community in ever-growing protest of the discrimination they faced on a daily basis. In response, black people brushed it off with a calm and collected attitude that was both strong and non-violent when it came to silencing those who dished racial abuse with joyful abandon. The game was all about the non-aggravating approach and most of all, keeping emotions under control. Martin Luther King was a prime example of this – he was inspired by the way Mahatma Ghandi dealt with British oppression in India and in many ways, embodied Ghandi’s values in himself as a leader. In youth speak, he was seriously cool.
Let’s look at a different scene where coolness reigned supreme like never before, and still does (on my YouTube suggestions list, for sure). Some of the most iconic black people of the time were black jazz musicians. Coincidence that cool jazz was born in the late 1940s? I think not. Heads up, I’m gonna indulge in my inner music nerd.
Cool jazz is most strongly characterised by its relaxed tempo, light texture and complex, classically-inclined solos. One of my favourites by far. Miles Davis’ album “Birth Of The Cool” was an icon of the genre, and he knocked those velvety trumpet solos right out of the park. A stark contrast to Dizzy Gillespie’s energetic, fast-paced music, that’s for sure. The key to cool jazz was its subdued approach – both in the music and the performers’ stage presence.
Take Lester Young. A stunning jazz tenor saxophonist who was known for his ice-cool demeanour on stage. At the time, there was a widely mocked image of black people being over enthusiastic when it came to fitting in with white culture and gaining white approval. In the performing arts, this translated into a happy-clappy stage presence with pantomime-esque grinning and dancing. Aptly named “Uncle Tomming”, this behaviour oozed humiliation and it was an outright comedy-of-errors type mockery of dignity and all its synonyms. Lester decided that he’d had enough. On stage, he was all about that sense of detachment both musically and visually. He was the first performer of his kind to wear sunglasses on stage – day or night, indoors or outdoors. He held his saxophone at a 45 degree angle, and his movements were deliberate yet completely at ease. The beautiful irony of it all lay in his painfully expressive artistry, which was perhaps exemplified by the blankness of his composure.
When you hear the word “cool”, what kind of imagery comes to mind? Most commonly, we’ll think of someone who’s well-dressed, slouched yet poised, perhaps wearing sunglasses and holding a glass of alcohol of some sort. These are some very specific details – why exactly do we associate them with a cool image? Let’s look at each one in detail.
- Well-dressed – anyone who dresses well is immediately assumed to be an authoritative figure who’s in control and successful in life. This is the very reason we have an office dress code and pyjamas don’t quite translate into suave elegance. That being said, it’s not easy to step out in the whole 007 shebang in a culture of laidback messiness – this is the exact kind of confidence that has itself written all over “cool”.
- Slouched yet poised – relaxed posture is the key. A relaxed, open body language conveys a devil-may-care confidence. In the face of threat, it takes on a silent defiance.
- Sunglasses – They quite literally act as a mask to the rest of the world by covering your eyes, the most expressive feature of your face that gives away emotion and your identity.
- Alcohol – Perhaps more of a social status symbol. Having a good alcohol tolerance is seen as an asset – the alternative is, well… bumbling and all over the place. It also signifies maturity and sophistication. Let’s be honest, my wine knowledge just about consists of three things – red, white and rosé. Perhaps dry and sweet at a stretch.
The next time you say “that’s so cool” to the latest Instagram contouring craze or anything else that makes you do that approving head motion that can only be described as a cross between a nod and a slow headbang, give it a little thought. Put the shades on and sway those hips down the street to the dulcet tones of Chet Baker. Lester would be proud. You go girl.
- Dr. Thorsten Botz-BorNstein, “What Does It Mean To Be Cool?” Published 2010. Accessed Sept 8 2017.
- University of Rochester Medical Centre, “What Does It Mean To Be Cool? It May Not Be What You Think”. Published 2012. Accessed Sept 8 2017.
- Jessica P. Ogilvie, “What defines cool”. Published Nov 10 2012. Accessed Sept 8 2017.
- Joel Dinerstein, “Lester Young and the Birth Of Cool”. Published Dec 10, 2014. Accessed Sept 8 2017.