IS COOL, OR IS IT HOT?
by Rip Rense
(Originally published in the Los Angeles Times)
Daughters are cool!"
These are the exact words I overheard in
a coffee klatsch conversation the other morning. They were exclaimed by an ear-pierced guy
who appeared to be in his late 40s, to a lady friend who had just revealed that she is the
mother of three girls. To her credit, the lady seemed confused by the remark.
Daughters are cool. Right, kind of like
Smashing Pumpkins, and "Friends" and snowboarding. They're fun! Having, and
presumably rearing, daughters is a cool thing to do. Yeah! Everybody should
experience it. (Am I to assume, that sons aren't cool?) Hey, cool HumVee! And those
daughters of yours are way cool. I'm gonna get me one or two!
And here I thought that bringing female
human beings into this world was a profound responsibility. That to be a parent of a
daughter was lovely, magical, humbling, beautiful, rewarding, exasperating, exhausting,
exhilirating, wondrous, maddening, thrilling, hilarious, poignant. . .
Didn't know it was cool. Guess I'll have
to hurry up and sire some girls.
I've had enough of cool. This word
has done to English adjectives what Saddam Hussein did to the Khurds. In that part of the
brain where multi-syllabic descriptive wonders like "delectable,"
"euphonious," "propitious," "thaumaturgic" once resided, cool
has taken up residence, and kicked everyone else out. At least, to hear people in this
country talk, it sure seems that way.
How else do you explain the fact that an
editor once told me, after I announced I would send a story to her, "cool!" I
didn't know that filing a story was cool. I thought it was just my job. Or that a radio
talk show host's revelation that he was writing a novel prompted his co-host to respond,
"cool." I didn't know that was cool. I thought it was admirable, impressive,
daunting, interesting, possibly enviable. I heard a guy on the Venice Beach Boardwalk
speak the words, "very cool," in response to a friend's stated plan to finish
school. I thought perhaps that was ambitious, laudable, difficult. . .
As near as I can tell, cool (pronounced
either coo-uhl or a kind of high-pitched, vowel-less kll ) now means
everything from sophisticated to charming to perspicacious to---well, I guess it means
every mostly-positive descriptor in the dictionary. Imagine the versatile circumstances
where it might be used:
"Mr. Rense, after we remove your
gall bladder, the discomfort will pass."
"Mr. Rense, your gums are healthy
enough to qualify you for dental implants."
"Mr. Rense, you might be crazy, but
you're not stupid."
"Mr. Rense, you're the proud father
of a chinchilla."
Arrested development helps. Relative
prosperity, Whole Foods, and Thigh Masters are allowing humans to remain healthy longer.
What are these sturdy specimens doing with this extra gift of hard-won health and
well-being? Applying it concertedly to bettering the lot of humankind? Well, yes, if that
includes playing roller hockey into your 50s. Living in a time when it is possible---in
fact, popular---to remain adolescent as long as health permits, aids and abets cool.
Why else would a middle-aged guy who ought to be patting his beer-belly and talking about
buying a Winnebago be sitting in a trendy espresso joint saying "daughters are
Connotatively, cool used to be a
slang word popularized by beatniks (meaning, roughly, good ), was appropriated by
hippies (meaning, roughly, able to appear collected while actually stoned into oblivion on
a drug of choice), and has long been favored by persons under twenty. Sometime in the last
few years, this adjective-devouring virus spread into the general population. I think the
host organism was the media. Consider this informative excerpt from a local restaurant
review radio show:
Host: "This place is terminally
cool. I mean, this place is so cool that Joey Ramone could be at the next table."
Guest: "Gee, I dunno---maybe it's too cool
This exchange---just what does it
mean?---took place between adult males, not thirteen-year-olds. I also heard fully
developed bi-peds having this conversation on TV:
"I bought the coolest couch. It was on
sale for $399. Isn't that cool?"
I've heard cool used to describe
everything from a Bartok opera to a '58 Buick. Once, some acquaintances invited me to view
a wall near the main Library downtown that had been painted by local artists. The
background was mauve, if I recall, puncutated by lots of little multi-colored, uniform
squiggles. "Cool," said one of my companions, who turned to me and asked,
"Isn't it cool?" I said it looked like a pattern for flannel pajamas. She seemed
to realize that this didn't mean cool.
I first realized the depth of my
objection to the current use of cool while watching a sports-shoe commercial that
depicted an obsessively fit couple---you know, where the striations of their muscle groups
were rippling through their skin---jogging up one of the Mayan pyramids in Mexico. When
they reached the top, having left behind a bunch of sweaty-browed, gut-busting tourists,
the striated woman breathlessly declared: "This is so cool!"
I see. Using the sacred relic of an
ancient civilization as an exercise device was cool. Somehow, I found it rather. .
.disrespectful. Or uncool, to use a term this woman might understand better.
Well, perhaps I am being unfair. If
you're going to physically feel like a teenager while in your 30s, 40s, 50s, why not talk
like one? And yes, I admit that I do hear people using at least one other adjective
besides cool in contemporary language. It is the word, "hot," which
shows up in the media (especially on shows like "E.T.") like earthquakes in the
Ring of Fire. You know---coming up: the hottest new flicks, the hot new video from
Madonna, and who has the hottest pecs and buns in Hollywood?
Cool, and hot. One can get
by very well in life, apparently, with these two temperature adjectives. The distinction?
"Hot," apparently, means "new and popular." But then, is
"hot" cool? Is it cool to be hot? Or is it hot to be cool? Or does use of hot
depend on whether the situation is cool? As near as I can tell, hot isn't necessarily
cool, and cool isn't necessarily hot. In other words, if daughters were hot, not everyone
would think they were cool. And while that guy with the earrings might think daughters are
cool, he might not think it's hot to have them.
These are the weighty semantical
questions of English in the late 20th century.
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