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.


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