Sunday, March 26, 2017

How The Vernacular Meaning Of "Cool" Has Changed Among African Americans

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a three part pancocojams series on the African American vernacular meanings of the word "cool".

This post provides some historical information about the changing vernacular meanings of the word "cool" in the United States.

Click for Part II of this series. Part II showcases the song "Cool" as performed by the Time (also known as Morris Day and the Time and The Original 7ven). Selected comments from the discussion threads for five YouTube examples of the Time's performance of that song are included in that post.

Part III showcases the song "Cool" as performed by Prince, the composer of that song. Selected comments from YouTube videos of Prince's performances of that song are also included in that post.

The content of this post is presented for linguistic, historical, folkloric, and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

A couple of days ago while YouTube surfing, I happened upon the official YouTube video of the 2014 song entitled "Shake Body" by Nigerian Afrobeat singer Skales. In the discussion thread for that video I noticed that a number of comments written by people who identified themselves as Africans included the use of the vernacular word "cool" with its meaning "great", "hip", "awesome". Furthermore, in that particular YouTube discussion thread- and in some other YouTube discussion threads of contemporary African music and dance- the word "cool" is often qualified by the word "too" or "very", or "so" (among other adverbs).

As a result of my reading that discussion thread, I published a two part pancocojams series entitled "Africans Use Of African American Vernacular English Terms In The Discussion Thread Of Skales' "Shake Body" Official YouTube Video". Here's the link to Part I of that discussion thread that included the word "cool": The link to Part II is included in that post.

Based on my direct experiences and my informal research, the vernacular word "cool" has changed among African Americans and perhaps among other Americans, and others from the meaning "self-possessed, "calm", "unruffled", "laid back" to being "great", "hip", "awesome", to a term that means that something that is/was said or done is [or someone is] "alright, "okay", "acceptable".

I also think that when African Americans changed the vernacular usage/meaning of the word "cool" (and other vernacular words that we created) when that word is appropriated by White Americans. That word is then replaced by another (or other) vernacular terms and only used by African Americans to evoke, represent, and/or pay homage to those artists and those "old school" times (such as in YouTube video discussion threads about The Time's and Prince's song "Cool".)

My position is that African Americans [and perhaps also other Americans] no longer routinely use the vernacular word "cool" as a superlative. I think that since at least the beginning 2000s, if not earlier, African Americans replaced the vernacular word "cool" (meaning "great", "hip", "awesome") and some other similarly defined African American originated superlative words/phrases such as "bad", "hip", and "hot" with "He [or it] is the sh&t" (usually with that word's full spelling) and such vernacular terms has "It [or he] is fire [fiyah]", "He [or it] is sick", and "He's a beast".

With regard to what I think is the largely retired use of the vernacular word "cool" as a superlative among African Americans, after reading a number of (rather long) YouTube discussion threads of the Times' and Prince' performances of the song "Cool", it seems that African Americans used/use certain adverbs with the vernacular word "cool" and not others (for instance, "real" and not "really").

I plan to publish other pancocojams posts that showcase African American music examples of the vernacular word "cool". Those posts will be identified by clicking the "vernacular use of the word cool" tag below.

This is only a partial compilation of information about and examples of the African American vernacular use of "cool" that I found online. I encourage pancocojams visitors who are interested in this subject to read these entire articles.

These excerpts/quotes are given in no particular order of preference and are numbered for referencing purposes only. Using great restraint :o), with only two exceptions, I've resisted the temptation of adding any editorial comments about these excerpts/quotes.

Excerpt #1:
From The Birth of Cool; Coul, coole, koole: How we got from cool temperatures to cool cats.
By Mike Vuolo, OCT. 1 2013
....”Exactly when, and where, cool aspired to more than mere composure—to an alluring mix of style, hipness, poise, and who knows what else—is impossible to determine, but there’s a tantalizing piece of evidence from the 19th century. In 1884, a professor at Washington and Lee University named James A. Harrison published an article titled “Negro English” in Anglia, a German journal about the English language. In it, he discusses African-American dialect with the panting excitement, and racist condescension, of a man who has discovered an alien culture in his own backyard. The Negro, he asserts:

... deals in hyperbole, in rhythm, in picture-words, like the poet; the slang which is an ingrained part of his being, as deep-dyed as his skin, is, with him, not mere word distortion; it is his verbal breath of life.

Among the many “Negroisms” that Harrison cites is the interjection “Dat’s cool!,” which is given without definition or explanation, and so we’re left to wonder at how closely its meaning mirrors the modern. By the 1920s, though, cool is firmly fixed as an unambiguous term of approval and even reverence. In 1924, the singer Anna Lee Chisholm recorded “Cool Kind Daddy Blues.” In the early 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston, in her short story “The Gilded Six-Bits,” wrote of a male character:

And whut make it so cool, he got money 'cumulated. And womens give it all to 'im.

By the 1940s, “cool cat” clawed its way into the jazz scene, and the word has had currency ever since. But for a concept that’s been around for a century, it’s stubbornly resistant to scrutiny. A couple of years ago, a psychologist named Ilan Dar-Nimrod, now at the University of Sydney in Australia, wanted to figure out which adjectives are most closely associated with cool, or, as he put it, “to determine what those in a coolness-valuing culture mean when they say cool.” Two broad sketches emerged, which Dar-Nimrod called cachet cool (think Marilyn Monroe) and contrarian cool (think James Dean).

As Dar-Nimrod points out, other research over the years has linked a number of behavioral traits to coolness, including sexual appetite, risk-taking, masculinity, and muted emotion. Plug all that into an algorithm, add nicotine and booze, and out pops Don Draper, who couldn’t care less whether you think he’s cool, which, according to research and to the never-ending frustration of Pete Campbell, only makes him cooler.”
Here's one comment from this article:
The Chadosaurus. Oct 2, 2013
"He didn't begin to examine the various permutations of what "cool" means.

1) nonchalant, unconcerned with the opinion of others

2) hip, trendy, stylish

3) calm

4) acceptable (as in, "that's cool" or "not cool, bro!"

5) remarkable

There are more."

Excerpt #2:
...."As an epithet
While slang terms are usually short-lived coinages and figures of speech, cool is an especially ubiquitous slang word, most notably among young people. As well as being understood throughout the English-speaking world, the word has even entered the vocabulary of several languages other than English.
In this sense, cool is used as a general positive epithet or interjection, which can have a range of related adjectival meanings.

Africa and the African diaspora
Author Robert Farris Thompson, professor of art history at Yale University, suggests that Itutu, which he translates as 'mystic coolness,'[14] is one of three pillars of a religious philosophy created in the 15th century[15] by Yoruba and Igbo civilizations of West Africa. Cool, or Itutu, contained meanings of conciliation and gentleness of character, of generosity and grace, and the ability to defuse fights and disputes. It also was associated with physical beauty. In Yoruba culture, Itutu is connected to water, because to the Yoruba the concept of coolness retained its physical connotation of temperature.[16] He cites a definition of cool from the Gola people of Liberia, who define it as the ability to be mentally calm or detached, in an other-worldly fashion, from one's circumstances, to be nonchalant in situations where emotionalism or eagerness would be natural and expected.[7] Joseph M. Murphy writes that "cool" is also closely associated with the deity Òsun of the Yoruba religion.[17]

Although Thompson acknowledges similarities between African and European cool in shared notions of self-control and imperturbability,[16] he finds the cultural value of cool in Africa which influenced the African diaspora to be different from that held by Europeans, who use the term primarily as the ability to remain calm under stress. According to Thompson, there is significant weight, meaning and spirituality attached to cool in traditional African cultures, something which, Thompson argues, is absent from the idea in a Western context.

"Control, stability, and composure under the African rubric of the cool seem to constitute elements of an all-embracing aesthetic attitude." African cool, writes Thompson, is "more complicated and more variously expressed than Western notions of sang-froid (literally, "cold blood"), cooling off, or even icy determination." (Thompson, African Arts)

The telling point is that the "mask" of coolness is worn not only in time of stress, but also of pleasure, in fields of expressive performance and the dance. Struck by the re-occurrence of this vital notion elsewhere in tropical Africa and in the Black Americas, I have come to term the attitude "an aesthetic of the cool" in the sense of a deeply and completely motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, of responsibility and play.[18]

African Americans
Ronald Perry writes that many words and expressions have passed from African-American Vernacular English into Standard English slang including the contemporary meaning of the word "cool."[19] The definition, as something fashionable, is said to have been popularized in jazz circles by tenor saxophonist Lester Young.[20] This predominantly black jazz scene in the U.S. and among expatriate musicians in Paris helped popularize notions of cool in the U.S. in the 1940s, giving birth to "Bohemian", or beatnik, culture.[8] Shortly thereafter, a style of jazz called cool jazz appeared on the music scene, emphasizing a restrained, laid-back solo style.[21] Notions of cool as an expression of centeredness in a Taoist sense, equilibrium and self-possession, of an absence of conflict are commonly understood in both African and African-American contexts well. Expressions such as, "Don't let it blow your cool," later, chill out, and the use of chill as a characterization of inner contentment or restful repose all have their origins in African-American Vernacular English.[22]

When the air in the smoke-filled nightclubs of that era became unbreathable, windows and doors were opened to allow some "cool air" in from the outside to help clear away the suffocating air. By analogy, the slow and smooth jazz style that was typical for that late-night scene came to be called "cool".[23]
The purpose of the cool jazz as Giogia stated, "The goal was always the same: to lower the temperature of the music and bring out different qualities in jazz." [24]...



In the novel Spook Country by William Gibson one character equates cool with a sense of exclusivity: "Secrets," said the Bigend beside her, "are the very root of cool."[61]
In the novel Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett the Monks of Cool are mentioned. In their passing-out test a novice must select the coolest garment from a room full of clothes. The correct answer is "Hey, whatever I select", suggesting that cool is primarily an attitude of self-assurance.[62]

"Coolness is a subjective and dynamic, socially constructed positive trait attributed to cultural objects (people, brands, products, trends, etc.) inferred to appropriately autonomous." [63]

[63] Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies, Corgi, 2005, p. 244."

Excerpt #3
From "When "Cool" Got Cool"
May 27, 2010 By Ben Zimmer
...”Cool is an old word, of course, and leading up to the 20th century it had developed an array of meanings from "calm and dispassionate" to "audaciously impudent." But it took the jazzmen of the 1940s to transform it into the universal sign of approval that we know and love. The writer Zora Neale Hurston might have presaged the jazz world's adoption of the word when she used the phrase "whut make it so cool" several times in the mid-'30s, but it could be argued that she was still drawing on the older "audacious" meaning of cool.

In jazz circles, cool (as in "That's cool," "He's cool," or simply "Cool!") first came to be associated with sax player Lester "Pres" Young in the early '40s. The breakout year in terms of its appearance in mainstream publications came in 1948, when The New Yorker reported, "The bebop people have a language of their own... Their expressions of approval include 'cool'!" That same year, music critics picked up on the use of cool to describe a new, more relaxed style of jazz. "Hot jazz is dead. Long live cool jazz!" announced The Bridgeport Telegram, while Life profiled Dizzy Gillespie as a "trumpeter who is hot, cool and gone" (a description that must have baffled most of Life's readers at the time).

Cool's big crossover to white teenagers happened about four years later. A June 1952 article about teen slang in the St. Joseph, Michigan Herald-Press explained that "to be 'cool' is the desire of every teen-ager." It also turned up that year in a now-hilarious film called "Young Man's Fancy," sponsored by the Edison Electric Institute, which you can watch online here and here. The protagonist Judy, a slang-slinging teenybopper, calls her crush "really cool" — and even better, "a real cool Jonah." (Not for nothing did this film get the wise-cracking treatment from the cult favorite "Mystery Science Theater 3000.")

Cool has ebbed and flowed a bit over the years, losing some of its luster in the '60s before coming back on a wave of retro nostalgia in the '70s. (Think of Arthur Fonzarelli of "Happy Days" and Danny Zuko of "Grease" — those would-be Brandos — as the avatars of retro-cool.) By now it's become a permanent fixture in English around the world, continuing to spawn books (The Book of Cool, Birth of the Cool, The Birth (and Death) of the Cool) dedicated to deconstructing the word and the cultural concept behind it. Its lasting appeal is perhaps due to what the linguist Donna Jo Napoli has called its "underspecified" nature, allowing it to adapt to a myriad of contexts. No question about it, cool is in no danger of cooling off."...

Example #4
From How Did Cool Become Such a Big Deal? It’s more than a word. It’s an attitude and a lifestyle.
By David Skinner | HUMANITIES, July/August 2014 | Volume 35, Number 4
"Cool is still cool. The word, the emotional style, and that whole flavor of cultural cachet remains ascendant after more than half a century.

It is, according to linguistic anthropologist Robert L. Moore, the most popular slang term of approval in English. Moore says cool is a counterword, which is a term whose meaning has broadened far beyond its original denotation.

For a millennium or so, cool has meant low in temperature, and temperature itself has long been a metaphor for psychological and emotional states (a cool reception, hotheaded). Chaucer, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, used cool to describe someone’s wit, Shakespeare to say, “More than cool reason ever comprehends.”

But starting around the 1930s, cool began appearing in American English as an extremely casual expression to mean something like ‘intensely good.’ This usage also distinguished the speaker, italicizing their apartness from mainstream culture.

As its popularity grew, cool’s range of possible meanings exploded. Pity the lexicographer who now has to enumerate all the qualities collecting in the hidden folds of cool: self-possessed, disengaged, quietly disdainful, morally good, intellectually assured, aesthetically rewarding, physically attractive, fashionable, and on and on.

Cool as a multipurpose slang word grew prevalent in the fifties and sixties, Moore argues, displacing swell and then outshowing countless other informal superlatives such as groovy, smooth, awesome, phat, sweet, just to name a few. Along the way, however, it has become much more than a word to be broken down and defined. It is practically a way of life.


I tally up three ingredients that my vague sense of history tells me are essential to cool at this point in time: Cool is urban; it is strongly associated with jazz; and it has something to do with race.

In a word, cool is black. Or, to be more accurate, there was a historical period in the evolution of the modern concept of cool when it seemed to be a property, largely but not exclusively, of African Americans.

Moore cites an early instance of cool in its slang form in Zora Neale Hurston’s 1935 collection Mules and Men, in which a man talks about his “box” or guitar: “Ah don’t go nowhere unless I take my box wid me. . . . And what make it so cool, Ah don’t go nowhere unless I play it.”


Near the mid-century point, cool was catching on big time. In 1947, the Charlie Parker Quartet recorded its album Cool Blues. A year later, the New Yorker explained, “The bebop people have a language of their own. . . . Their expressions of approval include ‘cool!’” And, in 1949, Miles Davis recorded The Birth of the Cool, pioneering a style of jazz that ironically would come to be associated with white people and the West Coast. In 1951, Broyard revisited his essay on the hipster, in an essay in Commentary called “Keep Cool, Man.” Here he described cool as a byproduct of the Negro’s “contact with white society.”

There is another narrative of cool, well told in American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style, that describes emotional detachment as part of a broader revision of Victorian standards. Race and music play no significant role, while modern psychology, especially in the workplace and, later, among parents and children, rewrites earlier scripts for childhood development, marriage, and socialization.


Talking about cool became a journalistic parlor game in the 1950s. The phrase cool cat, for example, which shows up little before this, quickly spreads from music publications such as Billboard and Metronome to On the Road by Jack Kerouac. In 1959, it is being explained to intellectuals in Encounter; in 1960, it’s in Life magazine.

The personification of cool, however, continued to be the hipster.


It is generally believed that it is not until the sixties that cool goes viral, as we would say. But before it does, Leroi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) takes up its meaning in his 1963 history of blues and jazz, Blues People. For Jones, the obvious context for a discussion of cool is the recent history of cool jazz and the longer history of African-American inequality. More or less a beatnik at the time, Jones was already a provocateur, although his take on cool could be described as conventional by today’s standards.

Cool jazz began with Miles Davis, who, Jones points out, “went into a virtual eclipse of popularity during the high point of the cool style’s success.” Perhaps Davis’s personal problems were to blame, but Jones complains that more than once he has read articles calling Miles Davis “a bad imitation” of the white West Coast trumpeter Chet Baker, the embodiment of cool jazz success. If anything, Jones said, it was the other way around.

The greater irony, however, for Jones was that cool jazz “seemed to represent almost exactly the opposite of what cool as a term of social philosophy had been given to mean.” For black people, to be cool was to be “calm, even unimpressed, by what horror the world might daily propose.” Cool was a quietly rebellious response to the history of slavery and post-Civil War injustices. “The term was never meant to connote the tepid new popular music of the white middle-brow middle class. On the contrary, it was exactly this America that one was supposed to ‘be cool’ in the face of.”

By this point, however, cool was well-noticed and recorded. In 1961, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, mentioned cool jazz and added a new sense to its old definition of cool: “mastery of the latest in approved technique and style.” A few years later, according to Moore, cool outpaces swell, until then the most prominent slang term of approval going back to the teens and twenties.

Linguists have a term for insisting that a word must always mean what it once meant. It’s called the etymological fallacy. It’s a fallacy because meanings change over time, just as cool has gone from referring to a certain temperature to a word my eight-year-old son uses to describe his new BMX bike. And yet words also come bearing history, emitting scents picked up on the roads they’ve traveled. Cool in its slang form is certainly an example of this, carrying an invisible statement of origins, reminding us of the treasures of jazz, black culture generally, and the difficult history of integration.

It also reminds us of another function of slang, one elucidated recently by Michael Adams in his book Slang: The People’s Poetry. Slang is creative, aesthetically interesting, and rich in meta-commentary, some of which becomes hard to discern just a few years later, less so perhaps in the case of a word like cool, which is still readily used and readily understood, but at times can be a little hard to nail down.

Excerpt #5:

(1) Established slang includes significant changes in the senses and applications of words: bad is used to mean ‘good’ (Hey, that's a bad car, man!); cool and hot are used with equal intensity to mean ‘very good’ (That car is real cool/hot);
I'm not sure when this article was written. It seems to me that the grammar section of that article is very outdated if it is even accurate (which I’m not sure about). Certainly people (including African Americans) can use African American Vernacular English slang without using any AAVE grammar, particularly the kind of grammar given in that section.

Excerpt #6:
From [retrieved March 25, 2017]

"Can “real” be used as an adverb to describe an adjective?

That is a real cool answer.

I learned that that was incorrect, since "real" is an adjective which can describe a noun, e.g. "real answer" but it is not an adverb which can describe an adjective, "real cool". Instead you would have to say:

That is a really cool answer.
Since "really" is an adverb.
edited Feb 2 '11, nohat; asked Aug 13 '10, Edward Tanguay

..."I immediately thought of Chester Himes' "The Real Cool Killers". I don't think he would have dared called his book "The Really Cool Killers". – quadruplebucky Feb 21 '14"

"The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English lists 'real' as an adverb also, but qualifies it as 'American English spoken'

Even Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary has the following note for 'real as an adverb:

Most handbooks consider the adverb real to be informal and more suitable to speech than writing. Our evidence shows these observations to be true in the main, but real is becoming more common in writing of an informal, conversational style. It is used as an intensifier only and is not interchangeable with really except in that use.

I, therefore, don't think it's incorrect to say something like "It is a real cool answer" in informal speech and writing! Here, 'real' is an intensifier, that is, an adverb qualifying an adjective!"
edited Aug 13 '10
answered Aug 13 '10 ; Manjima
Note: Chester Himes' novel "The Real Cool Killers” was published in November 28, 1958 [also given as 1959]

Excerpt #7
[by Gwendolyn Brooks]

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Die soon.

From The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks, published by Harpers. © 1960 by Gwendolyn Brooks. Used with permission. All rights reserved."


This concludes Part I of this pancocojams series.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Here are the definitions for "cold" and "cool" that are given in Hip Hoptionary: the dictionary of hip hop terminology by Alonzo Westbrook (2002)
    p. 28
    1. good, nice, That suit is cold
    2. mean
    3.sleep in the eyes from being tired"

    p. 29
    "cool - acceptable"

  2. Here's a link to an online list of Hip Hop terms that I just found.

    For what it's worth, it seems to me that the definitions that are given in that compilation are "on point" (accurate). And I like that that list also includes information about the geographical areas in the USA where the word came from and/or is most widely used.

    It's interesting that "hot" is included in that list, but "cool" isn't, which reinforces my sense that African Americans have retired the word "cool" to mean something that is very good.

    However, that list does have this entry for the word "cold":
    "Cold: (1) of high quality. (2) pleasing to look at. Primarily used in the Midwestern, United States (IL, MI, WI)".
    Maybe because I live in Pennsylvania, and before that I lived in New Jersey, I'm not familiar with these meanings of "cold". When I've heard "That's cold" used in a vernacular sense, it usually means that that was "cold blooded" [without empathy, "hard hearted"].