How a 1920s jazz age term became and remains a global phenomenonby John Harris / May 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Origins of Cool in Postwar America, by Joel Dinerstein (University of Chicago Press, £30)
In Straight From the Fridge, Dad, an authoritative dictionary of slang published in 2009, Max Décharné defines “cool” as “in the know, A-ok, hep,” and “unworried, calm… relaxed.” The musician and writer traces its origins to an effervescent jazz piece “How You Gonna Keep Kool?”, recorded by an obscure troupe called the Georgia Melodians in 1924. Almost a century separates then and now. Plenty of similar words have long since bitten the dust, from hep to hip, through groovy and fab, and on to wicked, phat and sick. But the notion of cool is still with us, expressed so often it goes unnoticed.
The rapper Jay Z replied to speculation about the gender of his unborn twins by saying: “Whatever God give me, I’m cool.” In 2014, London grime artist Stormzy admonished his rivals and detractors: “That is not cool, I can’t respect it.” Last year, Tove Lo, the potty-mouthed Swedish pop star held up as the embodiment of female empowerment, released “Cool Girl,” a celebration of no-strings romance: “I’m a cool girl… Ice cold, I roll my eyes at you, boy.” In terms of its endurance and ubiquity, then, no pop-cultural word comes close. But what does “cool” really mean, where did it come from and how has it changed over the decades?