When ‘cool’ is not cool

Just as a reformed smoker is often the first person to complain about a hotel room that smells of tobacco, I shall now complain bitterly about today’s society misusing the word “cool.”

“Cool”, as I understand and appreciate the word, originated from jazz music: the saxophone player doesn’t acknowledge the audience; he leans into his instrument and gives enough to come tantalizingly close to the edge of rapture, holds that spot for an impossibly long time and brings the audience back to a peaceful, easy feeling of contentment.

A tip of the hat is all the welcome he returns for giving the audience a collective orgasm.

That, right there, is cool.

It is the act of holding back. It is the suggestion of having so much more to give … but choosing not to.

I look at the Oxford Dictionary of Current English and I see that “cool” is defined as “free from anxiety or excitement”.

This very definition is cool because it doesn’t go as far as Marcel Danesi’s description in Cool – The Signs and Meanings of Adolescence.

He says, “The sum and substance of cool is a self-conscious aplomb in overall behaviour, which entails a set of specific behavioural characteristics that is firmly anchored in symbology, a set of discernible bodily movements, postures, facial expressions and voice modulations that are acquired and take on strategic social value within the peer context.”

Ahh, but the more we try to describe “cool”, the less cool we become.

Cool is as cool does. And this is something that only jazz can adequately explain … and it explains through example only … and only when it doesn’t care if you get it or not.

Jazz is the music of the world’s disenfranchised and abused people. It came over with slaves from Africa, via the blues, along with the concept of cool. You see, the slaves exercised an ironic detachment that was non-confrontational.

But something has happened to this gift of cool, passed down from such noble purpose. It became synonymous with the word “good”.

And, to finally round the analogy this missive began with, I am the greatest offender.

When I receive an email, indicating that an assignment will head off in the direction we all agree with – or some other banality – I do not write, “Yes, that is good. Please proceed.” Instead, I just write, “Cool.”

I like the word “cool” in this context. It doesn’t sound stuffy and it conveys that not only is it good, but that all is good.

For those of you who have read this far and have more or less agreed with what I’ve had to say, you understand that Leonard Cohen is cool … the fact that someone agrees with my latest email is not.

I feel so dirty.

Editors are supposed to be the guardians of the English language. Trendsetters, and those who instigate the otherwise accidental coinage of words, obtain no purchase in common usage until an editor allows it into print.

(Well, really, it is the copy editors … but they work for us.)

So, the fact that I have willfully misused the word “cool” is a dereliction of duty of the highest order.

I apologize.

From now on, I may be cool to an idea and I may feel cool when I sit next to a window. I may even be cool in an emergency and cool toward those who caused it while I have a cool $100 in my pocket.

But, no more will I regard a properly colour-coded spreadsheet and pronounce it, “Cool.”

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