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Reflections:What is it, man? Hot or cool?

What is it, man? Hot or cool?
By William L. Bulla
Weekly Contributing Writer

Recently, while listening to a performance of a jazz band, I overheard one person exclaim, "That sax player was pretty hot!" And another said, "Yeah! Cool man, cool!" Then I realized that the two words normally thought of as dealing with temperature might have other meanings. After some searching on the Internet, I discovered the following about "cool" and "hot".
Hot...Awesome! Nice! Very Good! Great! Popular! Stylish! Suave! Laid back! Neat! Neat-o! Pleasing! Outstanding!
Cool...Awesome! Nice! Very Good! Great! Popular! Stylish! Suave! Laid back! Neat! Neat-o! Pleasing! Outstanding!
WOW! That means something that is hot can also be cool, or vice versa. Does that also apply to our temperature measurements? I don't think so. Hot and cool are adjectives referring to something that is very good, stylish, or otherwise positive. It is among the most common slang terms used in today's world. Slang is the use of informal words and expressions that are not considered standard in the speaker's language or dialect, but are considered more acceptable when used socially. Slang is often used as a euphemism and may serve as a vocabulary to identify with one's peers.
The usage, of these adjectives as a general positive statement, has been used in English slang since World War II. English usage meaning "excellent, superlative," first appeared in written English in the early 1930s. Jazz musicians who used the terms are responsible for them becoming popular during the 1940s. As slang words expressing generally positive sentiments, they have stayed current far longer than most such words. One of the main characteristics of slang is the continual renewal of its vocabulary and storehouse of expressions: in order for slang to stay slangy, it has to have a feeling of novelty.
Hot, as a slang word, is used to mean...very good; having desirable or positive qualities especially those suitable for a thing specified; having or showing great eagerness or enthusiasm; of, relating to, or being an emotionally charged style of performance marked by strong rhythms and improvisation.
Elements of all these ideas came together in the jazz world in the 1940s, especially in cool jazz - for example Charlie Parker's Cool Blues of 1947. Jazz aficionados used the term to distinguish this style from the hot jazz then in vogue. It's with jazz that the slang term was most closely associated and out of which it became more widely known throughout the English-speaking world. In the fifties cool could mean restrained, relaxed, laid-back, detached, stylish, excellent, or other affirmative things. It became the keyword of the Beat generation and in the 1960s it moved into teen slang, where it has largely stayed.
What is surprising about cool is how long it has been around. Slang expressions meaning the same thing; have not lasted as long or continued to have its universal appeal. While slang terms are usually short-lived coinages and figures of speech, cool is an especially ubiquitous slang word, most notably among young people. Even if you ignore its pre-history, it has stayed in fashion for 50 years or more, a long time for a slang term. And it has remained slang, and not moved into the mainstream. As well as being understood throughout the English-speaking world, the word has even entered the vocabulary of several languages other than English. Today it's just as commonly encountered as it was in the fifties and sixties. Now that's "cool man, really cool!"

William L. Bulla is a freelance writer residing in Washington County.

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