Cool. You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

James Dean. Justin Bieber. James Bond. The New England Patriots wide receiver. Whatever definition of cool you’ve been sold we’re here to tell you: you’ve been duped. Cool does not exist and it never did – or at least not in the way you’ve been told it does – and really it doesn’t matter either way.

The word itself has its roots in old English and German.


Old English col “not warm” (but usually not as severe as cold), also, of persons, “unperturbed, undemonstrative,” from Proto-Germanic *koluz (source also of Middle Dutch coel, Dutch koel, Old High German kuoli, German kühl “cool,” Old Norse kala “be cold”).

While origins of the word itself are a dispute lost in history, we can find references to the concept it represents in primitive going back all the way to Shakespeare himself in Hamlet:

“O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience.”

Be cool. Calm. Patient even.

Even earlier instances exist from the Greek Stoics like Epictetus who spoke on the differences between those things that depend on us versus those things that do not depend on us, and advocated developing an attitude of regarding the things we can’t influence as unimportant. It is from this early devil-may-care attitude that we perhaps first gained the “aloof” quality of what would be later defined as “cool”.

In America at least the early concept of cool is rumored to have developed largely as a technique practiced by black slaves to avoid persecution. Keep your cool: This special defense mechanisms distilled emotional detachment with irony to create a fusion of subversion under the guise of submission without being openly provocative, as during slavery and even long afterwards any open aggression by blacks was punishable by cruel abuse or even death.

It is doubtless however that “cool” first aspired to be the definition of hipness thanks to early the jazz era subculture, where by the early 1940’s the phrase had come to be applied as a badge of credibility in the underground. Look at that “cool cat”!

While cool itself has remained steadily appealing over the ages the concept of what it is has slightly changed. A psychologist named Ilan Dar-Nimrod attempted to quantify this in his comparison of “cachet cool” or intentional cool (think Marilyn Monroe) as opposed to “contrarian cool” or not-cool-on-purpose cool (think James Dean); while some might say he failed miserably in discerning the algorithm of coolness he did at least broaden our spectrum of what it might be considered.

No matter how it has evolved, or how it may continue to evolve the nature of cool has always been hard to nail down. What is cool today is totally not cool tomorrow, so much that it’s even been in style to boast about how not-cool you are. I’ve watched the tech culture run this gamut over the last several years as their members have transformed from geek to chic with the rapid adoption of superhero movies, comic books, and video games as a part of the mainstream – insuring it’s time in the spotlight is already fading. When we’re all cool no one is actually cool, right?

Moving into the future we may need yet another means of bracketing what brand of cool we prefer: traditional cool vs post-millennial cool. Now that we’re all cool the new cool is not the same cool that once was in the sense of being a rebel, or even being cool by not being cool. According to a recent study of “Gen Z” by the Brand Team for Consumer Apps at Google the new cool is “It’s Lit!”.

“Unlike millennials, this group is ambitious, engaged, and feel like they can change the world,” ,
Google notes.

Of course they do! Delusional thinking skips a generation.

The study itself is just sad the longer you dig through it. Not just for the way “cool” teens are portrayed, or the fact that anyone in the know recognizes the phrase “It’s LIT” from its party culture origins. No, what is most sad is what this report tells us today’s generation thinks is cool: stuff. Phones, shoes, and plastic crap. Ladies and gentlemen if this report is to be believed cool has truly jumped the shark.

(did we just date ourselves with that reference? it’s cool, we don’t care.)

Google knows what’s up and in fact hit on the very core of cool in that they asked others what was cool rather than just publishing some hopped up opinion piece (ha).

They know it’s not something that can ever be held. The very act of discovering it causes it to move on. It’s as tenuous as the breath of a butterfly in a hurricane. It can not be intentionally manufactured. It’s a nirvana, a thing to be striven for but left to the gods. It can only be observed by those who have already witnessed it’s passing. You will never be cool; despite their urging to the contrary your parents never were either.

See, no matter what the time period or fad one thing hasn’t changed about cool and never will: you yourself can’t decide you’re cool. It’s so zen! Like trying to chew your own teeth. Cool has to be something you discover outside of yourself, something someone else bestows on you; the second you try to claim it for yourself it evaporates.

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