I was browsing Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang by the wonderful slang lexicographer Tom Dalzell when I bumped into some cool words that took me to the UK back in the day…
If you are, just for the nonce, a vibrant shadow in the spirit of our times; and if you describe an arc that is the cutting edge in the circles within which you move; then, you my friend, you are ahead of the curve. But are you cool?
If you have captured this moment, like a gaudy butterfly pinned to your page in history. If that is you with the à la mode gleam in your eye, then you are a cultural treasure. But y’know, are you cool?
If you know what is what and have cool regard of le dernier cri, from avant-garde to zeitgeist, then you, oh hipster dude, you are living the dream. But really, are you cool?
& how much of this dream you are living will you remember when you wake up?
are you cool?
The zeitgeist is ephemeral and, let’s be honest, not properly identifiable until its time has passed. Without retrospect how will you ever know that you were riding the zeitgeist until yesterday’s fashions are patched and flapping in the winds of change. Unless, perhaps, you were a cultural icon and, somehow, above showbiz and apart from celebrity. Were you once a legend in your own lunchtime?
Will you remember the daze when you were cool? Because nothing dates quicker than words for the culturally hep. And nothing measures up to cool. So, here’s a short, nostalgic lexicon of some modern words for modern people compiled by someone who may have had a Warholian fifteen minutes of cool way back in the 70s. Or not. It’s hard to remember. My list of words is in no way comprehensive, whatever. However, if you are or ever have been stylish and attractive, up-to-date, awesome or admired then these words may be yours.
cool – originally African American slang, was first recorded as a form of approval in 1884. Its generally ‘excellent’ sense didn’t fully emerge until the jazz scene of the late 1940s.
Digging it down the decades, cool is the coolest. However, before things could be cool they were sometimes hot. But, hey, this language is still evolving as succeeding generations make of it what they need.
Cool is still current, often in a weakened form as a substitute for ‘ok’. But if someone or something is really cool it’s better than ok. It’s cool.
hot – carrying many of the positive qualities of cool is recorded in 1845. It is still cool to be cool. Hot is not so hot.
fab – short for fabulous, full of optimism, turns ups burning brightly at the beginning of the 1960s. Within a couple of swinging years British pop sensation the Beatles were the zeitgeist and aka the Fab Four.
By the mid-60s though, around about the time when children’s television series Thunderbirds started using ‘F.A.B’ as a radio call sign, fab fashion moved on. Ah well, all things must pass. Twenty years later George Harrison (he was a Beatle in case you are too young to be expected to know these things) recorded the song When We Was Fab.
Fab is still out there, and some fantabulosa vocabularies wear it with pride, but its fabness is now little more than a tarnished sequin on the taffeta in a vintage frock shop.
groovy – all fine and excellent but, alas, now much derided, it is no longer cool. It first shows up in the great American jazz vocab of the 1940s, and all that jive, swinging all o’ way back to the 1930s’ jazz cats getting lost in their music, getting ‘in the groove’.
The 50s weren’t groovy.
But, hey, man, groovy is, like, so groovy & for just the grooviest of whiles it was, like, the 60s and everything was groovy.
Now, fifty years on, the retro ghost of groovy feasts on nostalgia like an undead fashion victim.
gear – from the gear, ‘that’s the gear’, just the job.
In early 60s’ Liverpool the Beatles made gear cool. To the world they were ‘fab and gear’. The Beatles split up, officially, in April 1970 but in truth they gave up the ghost while the 60s were writhing to death. The swingin’ sixties hadn’t been gear for good few years by the time the Fab Four were no more.
hip – derived, apparently, from an old wrestling expression ‘to have on the hip’ which, as all grappling fans must be hip to, is a winning position. Hip has ridden the zeitgeist wave for longer than most. I was never hip. Hip shows up in America just as the 20th Century is getting started, and for decades after hep was hip and hip was hep. In the end though hip was hipper than hepcats were hipped on. Some modern hipsters have beards like old-time wrestlers. But are they really hip? Do they have hipness?
in, uptight, & out of sight – Stevie Wonder was definitely in in 1965 when he had a hit with Uptight (Everything’s Alright). Who could forget those immortal lyrics ‘Baby, ev’rything is all right, uptight, out of sight‘.
Even now you may be in with the in crowd but in is not outasight, even if you are in it is unlikely that you are uptight, alright. In my world ‘uptight’ mainly meant something different: tense, worried, anything but cool, and I was never able to utter out of sight (except when singing along) without feeling like an absolute fraud.
with it – a term from the early 60s according to the OED. It is ‘up to date’. To be with it is to be fashionable. But is it cool? Are you with it?
You may well be on fleek right now but that doesn’t make you cool, does it? There’s any number of words that don’t quite ace it. Peachy superlatives abound. Hip hop in its pomp flung the best and worst of them around with gay abandon – da bomb, phat, fly, the shizzle – these words are wicked, they are bad, they may even be awesome but they ain’t cool.
There were days when I think I might have been cool. I remember being certain of what was uncool – that particularity was important to me at the time. However, that was once upon a time long ago in a far off land called the 1970s, and if I was cool I didn’t know it at the time, and can’t really remember the details now.
Slang superlatives may be fleeting and very much of their time but some of these words linger, echoing times when being cool mattered. These words register like a smell: one sniff and it’ll take you right back there.
So, are you Bluetoothed into the zeitgeist, dude?