HOW COOL IS COOL?
David Arthur Walters
Do you think you are way cool?
The expression ‘cool’ has been around a long time, but its meaning has evolved to the point where many of us do not have a clear idea of its meaning. It seems that plain old “cool” is for know-nothing kids or for musicians who are no longer with it. But I don’t know for sure. I had a pretty good idea of what the word meant in the Sixties, when saying “Cool!” was cool for trustworthy People Under Thirty. I no longer try to be cool, but I still use the word once in a while.
And what brought this subject up? A critical reader recently took me to task for using the expression “Way cool” in my autobiographical account of my first trip. She insisted that I must have said “Far out!”, because “way cool” is a modern modification of cool – the phrase can only to be found in the most recently updated slang dictionaries. At first glance, it seemed that she had called into account the veracity of my entire account, wherefore I took up the subject of cool.
My critics and I are always right in our own ways – even when we disagree, we eventually arrive at the same absolute truth. After all, there are many paths to the truth. Yet some ways are so devious that it would take light years to get there, so I shall be brief. My statement, that I said “Way cool!” in 1969, is quite true. Having transcended time and space along with nine other a-priori categories, I presciently ejaculated, “Way cool!” Hence my inclusion of the phrase in my book, Sunshine, Window Pane, and Blue Cheer, was appropriate.
My critic was correct about “far out.” It was used as early as the Fifties, but came into vogue in the Sixties and Seventies, and still enjoyed some usage in the Eighties.
“Way out” was the fashion during the Thirties, replacing hep and cool. It was used by progressive jazz buffs to connote a certain loss of consciousness during way-out improvisations. Whether far out is farther out than way out or vice versa is a matter upon which I will not speculate on this trip.
Yes, jazz can be cool. But cool jazz is not hot jazz or sensational jazz. Of course intellectual jazz is cool; it is sophisticated jazz – in the Fifties that meant white jazz. In that sense of cool, bop was not cool, although boppers certainly thought they were cool. This cool stuff confuses me somewhat because I am not a jazz buff. I don’t even know whether bop differs from bebop or not, but I recall that bebop was not the swinging “black” New Orleans style jazz that whites got off on because they wanted to dance; I think bebop involved a highly skilled technique developed by black intellectuals. However that may be, I believe that all colors of jazz are really cool.
Furthermore, here is some cool history (all dates are circa):
(1820) A daring and insolent man was a cool fish, perhaps one who had served time in the cooler.
(1860) A self-controlled person was as cool as a cucumber.
(1900) An attractive girl was said to be cool.
(1918) A cool kid was shrewd, urban and suave.
(1930) The exciting, enjoyable drummer was a cool drummer.
(1950) A man who kept his composure knew how to keep cool.
(1950) A man who felt safe would say, “I’m cool.”
(1970) People on friendly terms were cool with each other.
Well, I suppose everybody knows that already. No doubt I have missed some really cool usage, so please be cool and add your own for my soft drive.
As for the meaning of “way cool”, I’ll make a wild guess and leave it to those who are more culturally astute than I am to correct me. I suppose that way cool is more cool than cool and is farther out than way out and far out, while being the coolest of cool. But wait a minute! Does anyone know how cool cool can be before it’s too cold to be cool?