The Monks of Cool, whose tiny and exclusive monastery is hidden in a really cool and laid-back valley…
I was looking for a word to write about this week and Claire suggested cool. It’s a funny one. The origin of the term is clear, as is its shift from meaning “kind of cold” to “new-interesting-awesome,” or whatever definition of cool you ascribe to. What makes cool a difficult (fun?) subject to write about is that it is immutable, hard to nail down. Whatever cool is, it’s moved on by the time your parents have figured out its latest form, hell, it’s moved on by the time you’ve figured it out. Can you buy cool? Is it innate? Is it something we ascribe to others that does not in fact exist? I don’t know man, but teenagers, they certainly do.
So let’s start with the origin of the word. Cool comes from cold — not a shocker, but the split happened way in the wayback. From the proto-Indo-European root gel, which meant cold to the proto-Germanic koluz, also cold, to the Old English col, which meant not warm, to the regular English cool. There were, at the koluz stage, a number of cognates, including coel in Middle Dutch, kuoli in Old High German, and kala in Old Norse. (Last week’s word had a Latin root — remind me to tell you about the Frankentological history of the English language sometime.)
The contemporary meaning of cool, that mysterious quality, was born in 1933 in the Black American jazz scene, and was popularized by saxophonist Lester Young. Cool jazz? Used to literally be cool. Historically, when cool was applied to be people it meant, basically, “not warm.” Whatever cool is now, movie star cool, scene kid cool, it’s inextricable from its roots in Black American culture, and whatever Black cool is/was, is just as ineffable as mainstream, but has a distinctly political character.
Black cool is part of society in general, part of white society. Black cool is the tip of African-American culture’s engagement with the broader white culture. Black cool only works the way it works because it’s part of a relationship. Look at Andrews’s scene more closely. The woman, getting attention, rejects that attention, and as a result gets more attention. Cool has an additional dimension, too, which is that it buys time. In an uncertain social situation, where the wrong decision can have disastrous consequences, cool lets you stay a beat behind while you settle on the path of least destruction. — Questlove, What Happens When Black Loses Its Cool?
From jazz, to rock, to electronic dance music (yup, that too), to hip hop, coolness in music and fashion and speech and even posture, has, for the white masses, meant appropriating blackness. But mass cool, white, straight, middle class cool, doesn’t have much in common with black cool — it’s an approximation of fashion and posture, not quite the “buying time” that Questlove describes. It distances, and for rebels and outcasts that’s useful, but the precipice on which the cool person is standing is much lower, the disastrous consequences not so disastrous. See also, as the cultural dynamic of cool expanded, LGBTQ forms of coolness that acted as a defense against straight culture, (“it’s so cool, how can I hate it?”) were later absorbed by it. And note that any youth cultures that are non-white, non-straight, and non-rich that simultaneously intrigue and terrify you are cool.”
But what about cool girls, famous and otherwise, and how we eat them alive? You might have read this BuzzFeed article, Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls, when it was published in February. It’s a killer interrogation of famous, white girl cool.
We’d like to think of “cool” as connotative of something progressive, even radical. But Cool Girls are neither, at least not precisely. We love them because they seem to offer an alternative to the polished, performative femininity visible in both our stars and our peers. Because they “don’t give a shit”; because they don’t truck with the regulations and rules of dating and mean-girling that prove so infuriating. But to be “cool” is to tread a fine line between something different, something almost masculine, but never anything too masculine, or assertive, or independent. The Cool Girl can talk about poop, and video games, and eating Doritos, because those things are ultimately benign: Even with her short hair, Jennifer Lawrence still has the body and the face and the wardrobe that conforms to dominant beauty ideals.
This cool, famous person cool, “he’s a cool guy” cool, are all cools that have been absorbed and homogenized. Instead of threat, it’s a performance backed by charm. It’s not so much that the J Laws of the world are fake — we’re all performing — but that her cool is cool because it’s toothless. Like the word itself, it’s without edge. Is there anything less cool than cool, in 2014?
* No Jennifer Lawrences were harmed in the writing of this short essay. I’m sure she’s a super nice girl.
Links, Links, Links
- Thanks to Atlas Obscura, I now know that the Librije of St. Walburga’s Church in Zutaphen is one of the world’s last chained libraries. Founded in 1561 — though the church was built in the 11th century — the Librije has its books chained to lecterns. The same place they’ve been for centuries. Now that’s some effective Medieval anti-theft technology.
- The Guardian asks wherefore plague fiction? And while it doesn’t quite answer the question, it does provide a short highlight reel of plague stories through the centuries. The Decameron. Yesss. I’ve been wanting to do a Top Ten Plague Movies list for years. Too morbid? Not morbid enough?
- Who Wins in the Name Game? asks the Atlantic. The answer is depressing but predictable. Depressing: “normal” names that are familiar and easy to pronounce. In the West, white names. Male names.
A 2004 study showed that all else being equal, employers selected candidates with names like Emily Walsh and Greg Baker for callbacks almost 50 percent more often than candidates with names like Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones. Work experience was controlled and the candidates never met face-to-face with the employer so all that was being tested was the effect of the candidate’s name. The researchers concluded that there was a great advantage to having a white-sounding name, so much so that having a white-sounding name is worth about eight years of work experience. “Jamal” would have to work in an industry for eight years longer than “Greg” for them to have equal chances of being hired, even if Jamal came from a privileged background and Greg from an underprivileged one.