Acclaimed memoirist Binyavanga Wainaina talks about his writing, Africa today and his new life as an openly gay man.
From the category “Cool,” encompassing terms meaning extremely hip or with-it, and interjections proclaiming coolness.
Sometimes I imagine other civilizations watching us, observing our language, and borrowing the word cool to describe the myriad things that tickle their antennae. That’s how adaptable and irresistible cool is, a 1,500-year-old term that means somewhat less than cold and, since about 1950, somewhat more than “hot.”
As early as 1930, African-Americans were acclaiming hot stuff as cool, but in the ’50s the word acquired a nuance beyond the merely stylish and exciting. Among jazz musicians and finger-popping followers, it came to signify an understated soulfulness, a mellow quality calling for a restrained, discriminating style of acclaim. Lexicographers Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner said it implied “intellectual, psychological, and/or spiritual excitement and satisfaction, negation of mere obvious, physical, sensual excitement.”
To be cool was a special thing, earned like flight wings, unlike the facile kull or way cool. Cool people decreed what was cool, whether bop, beat poetry, or a tie so narrow it was almost invisible. But like other punchy utterances, the word caught fire and in the next decades became a colloquial term of general approbation. A Secretary of State called foreign policy cool. Cornflakes, dad wearing a dress, and the neighbor’s house exploding were now cool, according to television spawn of Beavis and Butthead.
It was hardly the first time a superlative lost its specificity: Grand once meant preeminent; swell, a fashionable dresser. But rarely does a popular slang term go general and then hang on to its popularity for what might be—in cool’s case—indefinitely.
Even as universal and enduring a term as cool, however, needs its synonyms, if only for novelty of expression. And since novelty is brief, especially in the digi-sphere, trend-conscious acclaimers (including me) wait like chicks with open beaks for the next stylish or funky candidate.
For this category I’ve selected current synonyms, recent ones, plus some still-spry retro items. Of course by the time you read this, current may be retro and retro current; so it goes. I’ve also intensified terms (including cool) in a number of ways and suggested various new phrase-formations to trigger your own inventiveness.
As you go down the list, you may be as puzzled as I am as to how certain words have earned their street cred. Single-syllable length seems to help (dope, tight, phat, fly, def, etc.), as does being introduced by a rap or teen-movie star (fetch). Clever shortenings (leet for elite) and touches of rebelliousness (gangsta, ill) count for something, though not as much as in our next category, “Wicked Cool.” But meaning? It doesn’t always figure. Don’t try to make more of the superlative book, for example, than that a certain numerical texting code pops it up before the intended cool.
You can say book and I’ll say bangin’. But I believe that those other civilizations out there, the ones eyeing us, still favor cool—perhaps even calling us Planet Cool, our hotheadedness notwithstanding.
(Copyright Arthur Plotnik, 2011)