As part of Gmail’s latest redesign, three bubbly auto-responses populate the end of nearly every email. One recent message from a colleague generated these three ecstatic reply options: “Thanks!”; “Thank you!”; and “Cool!”
Who do these algorithmic gods think I am? A person who would fire back not just “Cool” but “Cool!” with a perky little Tracy Flick exclamation point? As I recently pointed out to my editor when he proposed a headline including the egregious four-letter word, describing anything as “cool,” especially in writing, immediately renders it uncool. The title of Fox’s new sitcom “The Cool Kids” (debuting Sept. 28), set in a retirement home, seems to acknowledge this by using the word to characterize 70somethings; it’s doubtful the millennials will be watching.
Yet most of us say “cool” all the time, without really thinking about it. “If you saw something that was truly awesome you wouldn’t say ‘cool.’ ‘Cool’ is more like a throwaway,” said Lawrence Schlossman, the brand director at the resale site Grailed, and the man behind @Four_Pins, a men’s Twitter account focusing on men’s fashion with 635,000 followers. “It’s very lazy,” he said, a word that rolls off the tongue too easily. In his view, “cool” isn’t a word you actively apply to something, at least if you aspire to be, well, cool; it’s a passive, reflex appraisal. “Oh, cool.”
The word has been with most of us since birth. Per “Green’s Dictionary of Slang,” the adjective-- in the sense of meaning ”good, fine, pleasing, admirable”--broke through in the 1940s with the cool jazz movement, specifically Charlie Parker’s 1947 record “Cool Blues.” In the late ‘50s and ’60s came the “cool cat” Beatniks (who had no issue coopting lingo from black culture). The word, much like the folk-rock they listened to, was disseminated across the planet.
There were missteps along the way: “cool as a moose” in the ’60s, “cool beans” in the ’80s, but Jonathan Green, who operates Green’s Dictionary of Slang, described “cool” as “one of “slang’s great stayers.” He added, “I think a phrase like ‘out of sight’ would have big, ironic historical quotation marks around it but I don’t think ‘cool’ does.” And yet, Mr. Green noted that the last community he researched, U.K. drill artists, who practice a brisk, often aggressive form of rap, would never actually label themselves as cool. They’re far more inventive than that.
Rap, the most popular music of our day, has played a pivotal role in the word’s loss of currency. Black artists like Drake, Cardi B and Travis Scott dominate the Billboard Hot 100 and “are the arbiters of what is trending and what is popular with the youth today,” said Hillary Crosley Coker, a senior news producer at Genius. The Brooklyn-based website catalogs user-generated annotations on song lyrics, particularly rap songs. What marble was to Michelangelo, language is to rappers. They reshape and coin new language at a remarkable clip, producing terms like “it’s lit,” (it’s good) “slime,” (grime) and “water” (diamonds) with each new single. As these songs hit air waves and streaming platforms, so too do these once-esoteric terms enter the mainstream. “There’s a democratization of all things, opinions and slang and where something used to be a regional term, now it’s an internet term so that everyone gets to use it,” said Ms. Crosley Coker.
In cool’s place, we now have “fire,” “flames,” “dope,” “trill,” “heat,” “the shit.” And that’s just off the top of my head. Keeping up, even for someone who stays on top of the streaming charts, can be exhausting. And for every resilient bit of slang like “sick” you have an “on fleek,” which races through the teenage lexicon only to fizzle out by the time it reaches anyone over the age of 35.
It is perhaps safest to not keep up at all. That’s what’s driven @Four_Pins’ Mr. Schlossman to return to “radical,” “dope” and his personal favorite, “that rules.” Calling upon these endearingly old-school terms not only takes him off the linguistic hamster wheel, it feels right for this nostalgia-laden moment in fashion, the focus of most of his account’s tweets. “If we’re looking at a T-shirt that references something from when we’re younger and the reason that we think it’s interesting or desirable is because there’s a good factor of nostalgia at play, the mind automatically goes to a place of nostalgia or a more retro way to talk,” said Mr. Schlossman. What’s more, he said, a word like “radical,” with its roots in surfing and skateboarding, syncs up nicely with the fact that those two pursuits have inspired much of the current casual men’s fashion.
Still, though he doesn’t write the word, Mr. Schlossman falls back on “cool” when he talks. To consciously stop doing so, he feels, would seem calculated, overwrought, wooden, the very opposite of coolness itself. “There are [new] terms of approval…..terms of enjoyment, whatever it may be,” said the lexicologist Mr. Green, “but I still put my money on ‘cool.’”
Write to Jacob Gallagher at [email protected]