Cool: What is it?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

9:46 PM

In the pantheon of English language slang terms, none have displayed the longevity and relevancy of the word ‘cool.’ Protean in its ability to describe any number of situations, objects or persons, it has never gone out of style. In a word, ‘cool’ remains, well, cool.

 

What explains the staying power of this slang term, one which almost everyone would like to be described as? Whereas other alternative words for much of what constitutes society — people, money, possessions, career, recreational activities, names, whatever — come and go, the word cool remains a fixture in everyone’s lexicon. It’s a positive word, one that gives its possessor an elevated status. It’s a much-coveted characteristic.

 

But there is one aspect of cool that proves elusive for many of us: the state of being cool. One can own a cool car or home. Wear cool clothes and jewelry. Work at a cool job. Even travel to cool destinations. But the state of coolness is a ‘either you have it or you don’t’ proposition. You can’t perpetrate it. You can’t acquire it. You can’t learn it. You can’t even be conscious of it. It’s not self perceived. It’s what others see.

 

Can it be defined? Is it subjective, or is it universally determined by anyone exposed to it? Do others even know they are witnessing ‘cool’? Maybe it’s like pornography: You can’t quite define it, but you know it when you see it.

 

Though it may take on many different iterations, are there some basic characteristics of a ‘cool’ personality? Could a loud person be cool? How about a talkative person? Is shyness cool? What about nerdiness? Could someone with a type A personality be cool? Or is there a set group of personality traits that constitute coolness. If so, is how one looks one of them? What about tone of voice?  Is coolness a product of genetic predisposition?

 

As we inspect that thing called ‘cool,’ think of male film actors, for instance. Certain ones are considered cool by the general movie-watching public for the most part. Denzel Washington is considered cool. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were definitely considered cool in their day, as was James Dean during his short film career. Morgan Freeman and Sean Connery, despite their advanced age, are still considered cool, I think. Idris Elba? Timothy Oliphant? Samuel L? They get my vote. Matt Damon? Russell Crowe? Daniel Craig? I don’t know. It could be the roles they have played. Mahershala Ali, this year’s Oscar winner for best supporting actor, seemed cool to me in House of Cards, but, again, it could have been the role. Maybe you need cool guys to portray cool characters. Or maybe cool actors make the characters they play cool. (Of course, woman, too, can be cool, but that treatise will have to be published at another time.)

 

Maybe cool is subjective. I don’t consider Wesley Snipes to be cool. Nor is Leonardo DiCaprio cool in my opinion. Sean Connery is cool like a mug. The president of the United States? Big-time cool. Harrison Ford doesn’t strike me as cool but Clint Eastwood does. In terms of stars of the silver screen, am I overlaying a fictionalized image of their acting exploits onto their real selves?

 

Okay, lets look at sports figures. The cool factor is harder to discern because we only know them by their physical exploits and have no insight into their personalities outside of sports. Stephen Curry seems cool. Draymond Green is not cool, even though I admire him as a player. Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier was real cool and it wasn’t solely because of his off-court persona — full-length mink coats, fancy hats and flashy cars and flamboyant but tasteful suits and shoes. Nor was it his handsome features and exquisite mutton chop sideburns. It was also his smooth and effortless play on the court. Yes, he was a Jim Dandy to be sure and no doubt a lady killer. A real man’s man. Magic Johnson? I don’t consider him cool, though, again, I loved his game. Michael Jordan? Magnificent player but is he cool?

 

One doesn’t have to be a celebrity to be cool. Or wealthy. Or particularly good looking. I guess being intelligent helps, and certainly being articulate is a plus. But cool is more than the sum of any of the attributes one could ascribe it. Again, like pornography, you just know it when you see it.

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