It's hard to imagine the English language without the word cool as a colloquial description of someone or something first-rate. Over the past half-century of usage, the word has become so omnipresent that it has lost much of its slangy patina. Slang-watcher Connie Eble noted here that when she asks her students at the University of North Carolina to list items of slang, they don't even think of cool, since "it's just ordinary vocabulary for them." How did cool first break through to the mainstream?

Because of the ubiquity of cool, it's easy to surmise that it has always been with us in its now-familiar form. When it comes to language, our minds usually work the other way: if we have encountered a word or phrase only recently, we tend to think that it must be new to everyone else, too. Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky has called this the Recency Illusion. The flip side to the Recency Illusion is the Antiquity Illusion, when we assume relatively new expressions are much older than they actually are. A good example is "the whole nine yards," an idiom that has only been dated back to the early 1960s, despite various claims of a much earlier origin.

Cool fell victim to the Antiquity Illusion not too long ago in a lengthy debate on the letters page of The Times (UK) Literary Supplement. As I discuss in my "On Language" column in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, the debate was sparked by a TLS reviewer who took a translator to task for using cool in its slangy sense, despite the book's setting in the 1930s. In my column I explain how the TLS letter writers misinterpreted older examples of cool with anachronistically modern readings.

Cool is an old word, of course, and leading up to the 20th century it had developed an array of meanings from "calm and dispassionate" to "audaciously impudent." But it took the jazzmen of the 1940s to transform it into the universal sign of approval that we know and love. The writer Zora Neale Hurston might have presaged the jazz world's adoption of the word when she used the phrase "whut make it so cool" several times in the mid-'30s, but it could be argued that she was still drawing on the older "audacious" meaning of cool.

In jazz circles, cool (as in "That's cool," "He's cool," or simply "Cool!") first came to be associated with sax player Lester "Pres" Young in the early '40s. The breakout year in terms of its appearance in mainstream publications came in 1948, when The New Yorker reported, "The bebop people have a language of their own... Their expressions of approval include 'cool'!" That same year, music critics picked up on the use of cool to describe a new, more relaxed style of jazz. "Hot jazz is dead. Long live cool jazz!" announced The Bridgeport Telegram, while Life profiled Dizzy Gillespie as a "trumpeter who is hot, cool and gone" (a description that must have baffled most of Life's readers at the time).

Cool's big crossover to white teenagers happened about four years later. A June 1952 article about teen slang in the St. Joseph, Michigan Herald-Press explained that "to be 'cool' is the desire of every teen-ager." It also turned up that year in a now-hilarious film called "Young Man's Fancy," sponsored by the Edison Electric Institute, which you can watch online here and here. The protagonist Judy, a slang-slinging teenybopper, calls her crush "really cool" — and even better, "a real cool Jonah." (Not for nothing did this film get the wise-cracking treatment from the cult favorite "Mystery Science Theater 3000.")

Cool has ebbed and flowed a bit over the years, losing some of its luster in the '60s before coming back on a wave of retro nostalgia in the '70s. (Think of Arthur Fonzarelli of "Happy Days" and Danny Zuko of "Grease" — those would-be Brandos — as the avatars of retro-cool.) By now it's become a permanent fixture in English around the world, continuing to spawn books (The Book of Cool, Birth of the Cool, The Birth (and Death) of the Cool) dedicated to deconstructing the word and the cultural concept behind it. Its lasting appeal is perhaps due to what the linguist Donna Jo Napoli has called its "underspecified" nature, allowing it to adapt to a myriad of contexts. No question about it, cool is in no danger of cooling off.

Update: My "On Language" column is now online here. You can also hear me talk about cool and other recent column topics on WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show."

Part of the interview is available on YouTube:

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday May 27th 2010, 6:27 AM
Comment by: Cédric P. (Argenton Sur Creuse France)
As a matter of fact, I read yesterday an article about Miles Davis' album " Birth of the cool" recorded between 1949 and 1950, which can be viewed as the beginning of this jazz style. It appears that it is not the original album title but was retitled later on by the record company obviously for commercial reasons.
Thursday May 27th 2010, 7:23 PM
Comment by: Mark A. L.
I am surely in a tiny minority here, but even in the most casual conversation I avoid using "cool" as a synonym for good or interesting (things) or personable, agreeable, likable (people). There is always in the back of my mind the meaning "dispassionate." I do not want to contribute to the idea that detachment is good. There are times to be passionately engaged!
Friday May 28th 2010, 2:11 PM
Comment by: Gerri B. (Quincy, IL)
Many words have disparate meanings for different uses. In fact, there seems to be a certain bent toward that with slang (example, "my car is bad," which is really good). I can usually tell from the context whether "cool" is supposed to mean "dispassionate" vs. "fisrt rate." "My boss is a cool" seems clear vs. "my boss was cool to my idea." But I suspect when English is not your main language, that's a confusing concept.
Friday May 28th 2010, 4:48 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
That use of 'bad' is confusing to me, and I'm a native English speaker! But then I probably wouldn't talk too much to people who use it that way, though I might misunderstand some things I'd hear on TV.
Saturday May 29th 2010, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Adele C. M. (Charlotte, NC)
I recall being privately amused the first time I heard my youngest grandchild use “cool.” Despite her use, she did manage to graduate college (Meredith) this month.

My mother would at one time have been simply appalled, but later in her own life was known to “slip up” and use the term, having kept company with her own brother and some of his fellow jazz musicians. She herself was classically trained (I grew up listening to her play Haydn, Mozart, Liszt, etc) and was a regularly sought-after pianist in her own right; being a real musician, she was not in bondage to a specific form, but open to the possibility of other musical expressions. I guess you could say she gave herself permission to “think outside the box.”

Sometime in the late 70s it seems, my crowd abandoned “cool” for “together” -- as in “that’s so together.” Our “uncool” became “untogether” -- as in “BP’s response to the oil spill has been so untogether.” On the other hand, if you said it was “bad,” I daresay most English speakers would know exactly what you mean.
Saturday May 29th 2010, 3:04 PM
Comment by: Antony (Chestnut Hill, MA)
Whence came "way cool"?
Tuesday June 1st 2010, 6:31 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
"Way cool" reminds me of Earthworm Jim, but I don't know where or when the phrase arose.

Was it kool kats from the jazz world who began spelling it kool, or did that arise elsewhere, e.g. as a "skool" spin-off? (I'm guessing wildly here.)
Tuesday June 1st 2010, 8:51 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I love jazz, but associate 'Kool' with a certain drink popular in the warmth of my youth!
Thursday June 3rd 2010, 10:08 PM
Comment by: Anthony C. (North Bergen, NJ)
Oops!! Posted this under "European Style,"
Should be here and specially for Jane B.

As a young jazz musician I was invited to blow at a jam session way up in Harlem. It was an invigorating, happy, hand clapping crowd and i blew my little heart out. When i got off the stage i was rather pleased with myself until one of the swingers slapped me on the shoulder and said "Man, you is Bad!" Say what! Bad? Oh, heart was snapped like a broken reed. He saw my disconsulate look and said, "Man, why do you look so sad?" His friend said, "I know why the kid is down...he thinks bad is bad." He looked at me and said,"Kid,get hip...don't you know that bad is good...that's right...good...and you is the baddest cat in town."
Friday June 4th 2010, 9:01 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
That's sort of clear, Anthony! LOL Are you still a jazz musicion? One of my fondest memories is getting into Preservation Hall (hope I got the name right) in NO years ago. We stood in line for hours, but the experience was worth it. And it rained!

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Tracking Slang
Connie Eble has been following student slang for decades.
The origins of the phrase remain mysterious.
How "jazz" traveled from San Francisco to Chicago.