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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

how cool is that?

(1990’s | journalese? | “isn’t that great (or amazing)?,” “excellent!,” “cool!”)

This is not one of the those tedious questions intended to elicit a factual answer. It’s purely rhetorical, and if you respond, “Not very cool, at all, actually,” you have misunderstood the transaction. There are minor variants, from “how cool is this (or it)?” to “how cool is so-and-so?” (James Dean, etc.), which one saw before “how cool is that?” started showing up in the first half of the 1990’s. In general its field of use is quite limited. Almost always a response to something or someone occurring or appearing — not an abstraction — it conveys gung-ho enthusiasm along with a certain naive quality. It’s the affirmative ring and sentiment worn on the sleeve that lend the expression its character. It comes with a question mark, but it should wear an exclamation point.

I just wish I knew where this phrase comes from. There were a number of hits from the nineties in LexisNexis (more later in the decade), but they were scattered throughout different genres of journalism — arts, politics, sports, etc. — and not concentrated anywhere. It’s one of those expressions that has become an idiom despite the lack of a colorful origin or indeed any syntactic interest, which could occur in natural language without anyone noticing particularly. What are these expressions that sound like ordinary language yet harden into set phrases? I’ve covered some examples: “be careful out there,” “has left the building,” “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “play well with others,” “my work here is done.” The first three have a distinct origin and were attributable to a single moment if not a single person; the others have a more diffuse history. They all have in common a lack of fancifulness, and (except for the last one) a notable lack of irony. Like “how cool is that?,” they are used straight, almost invariably without sarcasm. Perhaps it is that persistent literal shading that gives these expressions their unusual force.

“Cool” has changed quite a bit in the last seventy years, with the first big shift taking place in the 1960’s. In postwar urban jazz culture (stop me before I sociologize again), “cool” had a pretty specific meaning: aware but detached and laid-back. It described a very particular kind of affect and behavior. In the sixties, it came to refer to anything agreeable, although a shadow of that more restrained meaning remained. As time went by, “cool” became just another word for “wonderful, for any old reason,” and that is the sense firmly enshrined in “how cool is that?” and its siblings.

Many thanks to lovely Martha from Queens for proposing this week’s expression! My devoted readers make it all worthwhile.

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