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As David Robins reminds us in the current issue, the “cult of cool” has become the dominant ethic among young people in developed countries. If so (and Robins may be right, even if he overestimates the connection between the “cool” mentality and knife crime), it is an interesting example of the power of language: of how a mere word, and one with an incredibly vague meaning, can give rise to an ethos to which millions subscribe.

Linguists are uncertain when the word “cool,” in its modern sense, originated. Clearly, the basic idea is metaphorical. Behaving in a “cool” way is…

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