“There is no single concept of cool,” Wikipedia writes rather poignantly. What’s cool today is not the same as what was cool yesterday, and it’s certainly not the same as what was cool in the 1700s. (What was cool in the 1700s? The British Aristocratic Reserve, write Dick Pountain and David Robinson in Cool Rules.) With a constantly changing definition, what’s “cool” right this minute is impossible to say.
A word with a definition that must enumerate ever-changing qualities, “cool” has eluded lexicographers; many have tried in vain to define it with “self-possessed,” “disengaged,” and “quietly disdainful,” yet none of these definitions truly describes the word’s simple elegance. So to get a sense of the word, instead of trying to pin down a definition, we should look at various things generally considered to be cool.
My list of things that are cool includes “Fireflies” by Owl City, the TV dramedy Scrubs, and any book by Bill Bryson. Of course, you probably (hopefully) have a different a list than I do, and you probably also have a different list than anyone else. So how could we ever agree on a definition of “cool”? Where does the idea of “coolness” even come from, anyway?
To describe temperature, “cool” has been around since the ninth century; as early as Beowulf, the word began to divorce itself from its literal meaning. The unknown author mentioned “cool” twice to describe hot tempers cooling, but this is, of course, a rather boring definition. When was it used in its modern definition? (Shakespeare, who coined constructions like “cool reason” and “cool patience,” would be another good answer, but again, that’s not really what we mean.)
The truth is that the word “cool” came from African Americans. James A. Harrison, a noted racist, cited the expression “dat’s cool!” as a common African- American expression in his 1884 article “Negro English” in Anglia, a German newspaper on the English language.
However, it wasn’t until the emergence of jazz in the 1920s that “cool” really took off. Song titles like “Cool Kind Daddy Blues” became popular, and by the 1940s, “cool jazz” had established itself as its own genre. By the time Miles Davis came out with his 1957 compilation album “Birth of the Cool,” the idea of “coolness” had lodged itself firmly in American culture.
In the Roaring ’20s, flappers, jazz, theaters, and dance halls were what were cool. Following World War II, cultural icons started popping up all over the place: think Elvis, James Dean, and John Wayne. Later, in the ’70s, it was cool to be a hippie—a longhaired, bell-bottom-jeans-clad guy who attended musical festivals and anti-war protests. In the ’80s, hip-hop and rap crept into popular culture, and in 1990, according to Billboard, rap “exploded.”
New music is often met with criticism from older generations. In a 1926 piece about jazz titled “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?” published in the Ladies Home Journal in 1921, Ann Shaw Faulkner called jazz “an influence for evil,” “not music at all,” and “an irritation of the nerves of hearing.” But Ms. Faulkner unwittingly revealed just why jazz music was so popular—kids loved it because their parents hated it. Hip-hop and rap are often met with similar criticism. How many times have you been in the car with your mother and forced to change the station when a rap song comes on? What’s cool is absolutely contingent on what your parents think isn’t.
What was cool 30 years ago is definitely not cool now. In Bowling for Soup’s 2004 hit 1985—a distinctly uncool song—Jaret Reddick sings, “Her two kids / in high school / They tell her that she’s uncool / Cuz she’s still preoccupied with 1985.”
Even what was cool a few years ago is now all but forgotten. When was the last time you saw someone do an ice bucket challenge—in 2014, probably—or the Harlem shake—2013? Even things popular just months ago have now already faded into obscurity. Does anybody still remember the mannequin challenge? And is it still cool to dab? (Was it ever?) Viral videos add a whole new dimension to coolness; the one-hit wonders of the Internet come and go seemingly every other day.
Only other people can deem you cool, but no one seems to have a clear idea of what it is; everyone has their own definition. But that doesn’t stop lots of people who aspire to be cool from constantly worrying about how other people see them. There’s good news for the self-conscious, though! With innumerable different definitions of “coolness” floating around, who’s to say whether you have it or not?