How Cool is That?

“Better get the yard mowed before it rains again,” I thought reluctantly yesterday afternoon. The clouds were so low, so full, and so gray, I felt like they were rubbing the top of my head. And by the time I got done mowing, I was sodden, wrung out, panting.

I pushed the mower over to its gravel home and straightened up. A hint of breeze danced around my cheeks, and I stopped for a moment to savor. “Ahhh, cool,” I thought. Reluctant to go inside, into the artificial chill of the air conditioning, I sat on the back stoop and cleaned up our little repurposed chef statue-plant holder and filled the pots I spray-painted black with lovely organic garden soil. I planted the pots with marigolds and vinca and petunias. (At least two of those three are flowers our deer disdain. I’m hoping they will last the summer on the south side of the house.)

Then I did go inside, where the comfy air felt like a cold blast after the sun’s heat, and I got on-line to order tickets for the minor league baseball game we’re attending Sunday. Mark has been wanting to go; Father’s Day seems like a perfect day to enjoy a home game, a hot dog or two, and a seventh inning stretch.

“I got those tickets,” I said to Jim, in passing.

And he responded, “Cool.”

Later that night, I checked the weather app to see if we were still expecting thunder storms in the wee hours (the storms, I’m happy to say, passed us by), and I noticed that Sunday’s temps are expected to be in the nineties. So it will be cool to go to the game, but it won’t actually BE cool.

And then I thought about about finding cool breezes and finding cool things to do, and I got wondering about when, why, and how we started calling things that are wonderful to experience, ‘cool.’


Mike Vuolo, in “The Birth of Cool,” (please see notes that we English speakers have been using temperature words to describe other, less concrete concepts, for a long, long time. So we might say, “He was hot under the collar,” when we describe someone who’s lost his temper; we might say a particularly attractive individual is “hot.” And we might say that someone who wantonly disregards other people’s feelings is cold, cold, cold.

But it’s a compliment of the highest order to be called cool, even though, nowadays, it’s a little bit of a status symbol to say, “I’m doing it anyway, even though I know it’s not cool.”

When did ‘cool’ come to mean suave and slick and admirable to the nth degree? Vuolo has a theory.

He believes that the word cool itself slipped into English, borrowed from similar forms in the German and the Dutch, back in the ninth century, And, as early as Beowulf, Vuolo says, cool was used to describe emotions. (Certainly, Shakespeare perpetuated that. Here’s a snippet of Hamlet Vuolo quotes:

Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper

Sprinkle cool patience.)

By the sixteenth century, writes Vuolo, cool had attached itself to other abstract concepts. Thus, we have cool customers and cool outlooks, and keeping our cool becomes a thing to be envied.

But cool as the aspirational state of being, cool as in Snoopy’s Joe Cool, comes later. The first actual mention in that regard may be in 1884, in Washington and Lee professor James Harrison’s article, “Negro English,” in which he shares the phrase, “That’s cool,” without saying much about what it means. (The English language, again, benefited from the diverse peoples who speak and shape the tongue.)

By the 1920’s, says Vuolo, ‘cool’ was part of jazz language. In the 1930’s, Zora Neale Hurston, writing in dialect, says, “What make it so cool…” in her story, “the Gilded Six-Bits.” By the 1940’s, awesome people were called ‘cool cats.’

And sometime after that the concept of cool and the use of the word cool seeped into everyday language—a synonym for wonderful, delightful, and/or very, very charismatic. It’s hard, writes Vuolo, to pinpoint exactly when that happened, but do we need an exact date?

I don’t think so. It’s cool.


That got me thinking about the funny expression, ‘cooling our heals.’ We use it when we are kicking back, taking a break, maybe biding our time and waiting for something to happen.

“Cool your heels, and I’ll get it for you,” one might say.

I picture the one who waits grabbing a seat, slipping off shoes and socks, stretching their hot feet into an icy tub of water.

Ahhhh. Waiting.

Barrie England, at, proposes a sensible “cool your heels” etymology. When we work, he says, or when we walk, our feet get hot. Then, when it’s time to take a break, we want to change that, to cool those hot feet down. England says “coole their heeles” first showed up in English language print in 1606, and it referred to horses getting rested. Not long after that, though, England writes, a reference to humans cooling their heels popped up in Chapman’s translation of The Iliad.


So then I wonder, following this colder temperature theme, why do we call that common illness we all dread a ‘cold’?

First, I look up the definition of the common cold. Merriam-Webster tells me that it is “an acute disease of the upper respiratory tract that is marked by the inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose, throat, eyes, and Eustachian tubes, and by a watery, then purulent, discharge…” (

Eeeuw…no thank you right now, please. But why cold? Many of those symptoms—inflammation, for instance, and the fevers folks often get in conjunction with their colds,—actually seem HOT. (Imagine this: “What’s wrong with you?” she asks her sneezing companion. “Oh, nothing,” he says. “I just have a common hot.”)

Amanda Haig, writing on Quora, says that the early Greeks and Chinese, in developing their medicinal practices, thought of heat as excess and cold as absence or deficiency. So, when the body doesn’t have enough strength, healing power, immunity against whatever illness can penetrate,…well, then the body was said to be in a state of ‘cold.’ Ironically, that condition converted to excess…excess heat when fever is present, excess congestion, excess phlegm.

On the same site, Clara Hamilton suggests a simpler solution to the use of the term ‘common cold’: she writes, “…a cold has a lot of the same symptoms as being exposed to cold” does.

Both explanations make sense to me.


Whatever. I slip into old shorts and a paint-spotted t-shirt on Thursday morning and go rummaging to find my paint supplies. These are clothes designed for lightness, breeziness, clothes to wear when heat is high. They are definitely not ‘cool’ clothes. I look, in my well-worn, shapeless paint togs, decidedly UN-cool. But I’m not worried about how I look to paint the trim on the sun-porch.

And, while I pant, I ponder packing water bottles for Sunday’s outing, wondering if the stadium lets us bring our own, and I think it’s a happy happenstance that we do have aisle seats. I think about buying those little battery-operated mister fans, the portable ones people can carry with them.

Would that be cool? I do not know.

These hot-edged days haze the horizon, and they blur the vocabulary, too. It is middle June in central Ohio. The temperatures are high; the air is muggy. And I, although trundling into my golden years, despite disdaining conformity and convention, I am, all the same, still in pursuit of cool.


13 thoughts on “How Cool is That?

  1. Sue

    ~greatly enjoyed this historical vocab lesson on a favorite word & w/temps in the ‘Cuse predicted for humid triple-digits on Mon., I’ll be putting it on the ‘back burner’ for near-future use! (must mention that a certain little beagle’s tail must be wagging w/such tributes: 100+ FB shares of her story!!!!) ;>)

  2. Lol. Love it and enjoyed learning about phrases and words I used but never thought of origins! You are cool Pam. But it’s going to be a hot one tomorrow. And by the way – it is now cool to be hot!!! Lol.

    1. And it’s good to be ‘bad,’ too, isn’t it???? I will never keep up!

      I bought (at the dollar store) some of those little fans that you can fill with water and spritz yourself for the game…it IS going to be a hot one! Hope you have a great weekend, my cool friend!

  3. Very cool essay, Pam. Thanks! I love the range of your research and your ability to apply that research to the metaphorical meaning of “cool,” which is really the only meaning of the term that any of us cares about. I myself have been cool only for about five minutes in my life. It happened when I won a speech tournament when I was thirteen. The girls were *all over* me. (Where did they go? Where did I go? Where did the time go? I’m thinking of John Gary’s achingly-beautiful cover of the song “Once Upon a Time.” Go listen to it on YouTube while I climb into bed tonight and sob into my pillow ’cause I’m just not cool anymore.)

    1. Okay…just back from listening to John Gary sing that lovely song…sniff…Thanks for that connection, John.

      I think it’s cool to be un-cool these days, so I’m feeling like I have to have hit the mark somewhere, accidentally…

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