What are they on about?

7th April 2000 at 01:00
David Newnham refuses to chill out

Welcome to the column that isn't cool. Fantastic, fabulous, tremendous, brilliant by all means. But cool? I don't think so.

I have a problem with the word, you see. Everybody is saying it, even comfortably upholstered middle-aged men. But I just can't let myself go.

To be honest, I find it embarrassing - a bit like wearing my shirt outside my trousers. Everyone around me is untucked and cool. Perhaps if I shut my eyes and did it I would feel liberated. But I can't. Something tells me that the very first time I use the word, people will point at me and fall off their inline skates laughing. "Hey, did you really say that? You sad person. You surely can't imagine it makes you seem younger, can you? And tuck your shirt in. You look ridiculous."

Mind you, compared with "cool", I'm a spring chicken. The word has done at least two tours of duty since I've been around, and a couple of centuries ago people were already using it to imply boldness and impudence combined with enviable unflappability.

In the current sense, "cool" seems to have come into vogue on the back of jazz. At some stage, it wisely switched genres, and I seem to recal a lot of "coolness" during the Sixties. Hippies were cool, as were dudes and cats. Now, after an interglacial period in which the word never entirely vanished, things are cooler than ever. I put an Internet search engine on the case and it found 7,235,956 "cool" references in its archive.

And what is the current sense? Synonyms in my lifetime have ranged from "right you are" and "okey-dokey" to "far out", "groovy", "super", "great", "fantastic", "sure", "nice one", "tremendous", "right on" and "brill". My conservative old dictionary, however, gives a sequence of meanings which I find rather significant. It runs: "restrained", "relaxed", "unemotional", "lacking zeal", "lukewarm", "lacking cordiality" and "excellent".

Excellent as in unemotional? Excellent as in lukewarm and lacking cordiality? What we're looking at here is the antithesis of passion and commitment and that old bete noire of the Age of Reason, "enthusiasm".

History is finished, runs the subliminal message, and politics is for trainspotters. There's no such thing as society and you can't change human nature. So why get hot and bothered? Just chill out, lie back and listen to the music.


Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today