Etymology #4: How “Cool” Became Mainstream

By | March 17, 2023
Cool doesn't always mean ice.
Cool doesn’t always mean ice. Image: Sindre Fs

Language is constantly evolving, and one of the most fascinating examples of this evolution is the way in which slang words become mainstream. One such word is “cool,” a ubiquitous term that has become a staple of modern language. But where did this word come from, and how did it achieve its current status?

In English, the word ‘cool’ has undergone a metaphorical transfer from describing a temperature state to a character trait since at least the beginning of the 18th century. The origins of the rising popularity of this word can be traced back to African American culture in the early 20th century. During this time, jazz music was on the rise, and African American musicians were beginning to gain popularity. They used the word “cool” as a term of approval, meaning something was fashionable, desirable, or impressive.

As jazz music gained popularity, so did the use of the word “cool” among the broader population. It became associated with a sense of relaxed, understated confidence, and it was used to describe everything from music and fashion to behavior and attitudes. By the 1950s, “cool” had become a catch-all term for anything that was considered hip or trendy.

As the use of “cool” became more widespread, it began to take on new meanings and connotations. For example, in the 1960s, “cool” was often associated with counterculture and rebellion. It was used to describe anything that was unconventional or non-conformist, from the music of the Beatles to the fashion of the hippies.

In the 1970s and 1980s, “cool” became associated with a more corporate, mainstream culture. It was used to describe products and services that were perceived as modern, innovative, and sophisticated. Advertisers began to use the word in their marketing campaigns, and it became a popular buzzword in the business world.

Today, “cool” is still in common usage, and it has continued to evolve and adapt to new contexts. It is used to describe everything from fashion and design to technology and social media. In some cases, it has taken on ironic or self-aware connotations, as people use it to describe things that are intentionally uncool or outdated.

The evolution of “cool” is a fascinating example of how language can adapt and change over time. From its origins in African American jazz culture to its current status as a ubiquitous term of approval, “cool” has undergone a remarkable transformation. Its evolution highlights the dynamic nature of language, and the way in which words can take on new meanings and connotations as they become more widely used.

In conclusion, the story of “cool” is just one example of how slang words can become mainstream, and how language can evolve over time. As society changes, so too does the way in which we communicate, and words that were once considered taboo or unconventional can become an accepted part of everyday language. The etymology of “cool” reminds us of the power of language to reflect and shape our culture, and the ways in which words can take on new meanings and become an integral part of our shared vocabulary.

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