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I see and hear two general slang usages of cool - one meaning great (illustrated by a and b below), and one meaning acceptable/okay (illustrated by c and d). The following are Dictionary.com's four (read: two) definitions of the slang cool:

14. Slang
a. great; fine; excellent: a real cool comic.
b. characterized by great facility; highly skilled or clever: cool maneuvers on the parallel bars.
c. socially adept: It's not cool to arrive at a party too early.
d. acceptable; satisfactory; okay: If you want to stay late, that's cool.

Why did cool come to mean great or acceptable? Also, can anyone find some early usages? The biggest clue I have is this (from Dictionary.com):

Slang use for "fashionable" is 1933, originally Black English, said to have been popularized in jazz circles by tenor saxophonist Lester Young.

Googling Lester Young 1933 "cool", etc., did not yield me any fruit.

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I have always assumed it was an extension of cool meaning aloof. Since if you are aloof it can give you a certain air of superiority that some people respect (others find infuriating). It's certainly how I imagine James Dean. –  Matt Эллен Sep 23 '11 at 19:11
    
Man, that's an aloof motorcycle! And by the way, are you aloof with me having the car tonight? –  Daniel Sep 23 '11 at 19:12
    
Artis Leon Ivey, Jr, also known as Aloofio –  JeffSahol Sep 23 '11 at 19:16
    
Thanks and no :D Cool's meaning has evolved, obviously :) But if you are aloof then things don't seem to bother you, which seems to be the root of being cool. (to me) –  Matt Эллен Sep 23 '11 at 19:16
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Well, things certainly don't seem to bother your cool motorcycle. ;) –  Daniel Sep 23 '11 at 19:34
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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The Oxford English Dictionary writes:

Originally in African-American usage: (as a general term of approval) admirable, excellent. Cf. hot adj. 12c. Popularized among jazz musicians and enthusiasts in the late 1940s

The first example they give is from the 1930s:

1933 Z. N. Hurston in Story Aug. 63 And whut make it so cool, he got money 'cumulated. And womens give it all to 'im.

The entry refers to hot as a comparison--the main entry is "Characterized by intensity or energy, in a positive or neutral sense (cf. sense A. 9); exciting, fast, successful, etc." and the related sense is:

colloq. (orig. U.S.). Extremely good, splendid; very skilled, knowledgeable, or successful. Also with on and a specified subject or activity.

This is first noted from the 1800s:

1845 in G. W. Harris High Times & Hard Times (1967) 52, I am a hot hand at the location of capital letters and punctuation.

So, it looks like cool developed to mean the same thing as the earlier slang hot in African American English. There is no explanation of why this occurred.

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Sooo, no explanation, eh? I might have known :) –  Daniel Sep 23 '11 at 19:20
    
@drɱ65δ I suspect it could be something similar to using antonyms because it was a counter-culture, but I don't want to put out conjectures I can't back up. –  simchona Sep 23 '11 at 19:21
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Then what did you just do? :) –  Daniel Sep 23 '11 at 19:22
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@drɱ65δ Didn't put it in my answer, that's for sure :] –  simchona Sep 23 '11 at 19:24
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I imagine that it can be explained in the same way that 'bad', 'wicked', etc. (and for that matter, 'terrific') took on positive slang connotations (the latter is probably thought of more as colloquial now). Unfortunately, I don't really know how that is... –  Karl Knechtel Sep 23 '11 at 20:17
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I always thought cool developed from the Swedish word for "fun", kul, which sounds kind of like cool. In the English language there are many words that come from other languages, so as a child I just assumed since they sounded so similar cool must have been changed and adapted over the years. I'm probably wrong, but I've always wondered about it.

Just my two cents' worth.

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Hi Greg. This is interesting. Do you have any links to support it? Or would you like me to convert it to a comment? –  KitFox Sep 5 '12 at 17:32
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protected by RegDwigнt Sep 23 '12 at 19:41

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