We all have our own way of verbally expressing approval. At different ages we express ourselves differently.
When I was a kid I often thought things were neat, keen or cool. As a teenager, things became groovy, far out, radical and some things were still pretty cool. As a young adult everything was awesome or excellent except for the things that were still cool. When I was in the Navy my boss said it was, “out-freaking-standing!” that I finally got a haircut. That was very cool.
In my lifetime, a lot of contemporary slang has come and gone but “cool” has stood the test of time. Words like swell, radical, keen, groovy and (thanks to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) tubular had short trendy runs. Don’t get me wrong, there are diehards out there who never give up on their words. I know an otherwise normal college-educated professional who still thinks life is groovy.
My daughter was a serious retro Ninja Turtle fan and had an occasional “totally tubular” moment. Tough guys like Humphrey Bogart, Clint Eastwood are the only ones who can pull off saying “swell” without sounding like complete idiots. But if you hear anyone in the 21st century referring to something as “keen,” watch them very closely.
I think “cool” has stood the test of time because it’s a simple word that is very soothing in nature. I looked it up in the dictionary and the primary definition is, “moderately free of heat.” Just thinking about it makes me want to wear my shades indoors. How cool is that?
Another reason “cool” has endured for so long might be the amazing versatility of the word. There are dozens of different applications and each, when used properly, can really make you sound, well, cool. If someone is being obnoxious you might say, “Hey be cool, man.” You can be cool as a cucumber, cool under fire or you can sit back and cool your heels. When my wife asks if I’m angry I reassure her that, “I’m cool.”
Louis Armstrong was a cool cat, Bart Simpson is a cool dude and Elvis was one cool customer. I once got a cool reception from a cool girl because my car wasn’t cool enough. That’s not cool.
I think we say cool because, in the end, most of us want to be cool. Certainly nobody wants to be cool more than teenagers. A typical teenager is so driven by the need to be cool that it determines how they dress, cut their hair, what music they listen to, who their friends are and how they communicate. You parents out there know what I’m talking about.
Let’s say, for example, that your teenage son wanted to sleep over at his friend Joe Smith’s house. If it’s just the two of you at home he might say, “Dad, may I sleep over at Joe’s tonight?” If he’s calling from his cell phone in the presence of his friends he’ll more likely ask, “Hey Pops, is it cool if I chill at Smith’s tonight?”
He’s a smart boy and has to know that there is no chance I know what he’s asking me and that I’ll probably get mad and say no. The only possible explanation for this is that his overwhelming desire to be cool in front of his friends is overriding his desire to communicate effectively with me. But that’s cool.
As a middle-aged guy I don’t use a lot of faddish slang any more. For a guy past the age of 30 to refer to anything that is not actually ticking as, “the bomb” or worse yet, “da bomb” is just sad.
For folks my age, if you’re “chilling” it’s probably time to see your doctor. I’ve reached the point where it’s tough enough to remember the words I already know so I think I’ll leave the new ones to the kids ... if that’s cool with you.
Rick Seley, an award-winning humor columnist, is on business leave this week. This is one of Rick’s favorite columns from 2006.