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According to Etymonline cool as a noun:

  • meaning "one's self-control, composure" (the thing you either keep or lose) is from 1966.

Also Ngram appears to suggest that the expression is from the mid-'60s.

While other sources indicate that this usage dates back to the '50s, and is probably from Beat slang:

Keep one's cool:

  • To retain one's composure; stay calm; cool it: We'd all better keep our cool and not provoke him (1950s+ Beat & cool talk)

(The Dictionary of American Slang,Fourth Edition by Barbara Ann Kipfer)

  • Retain one's composure and poise, as in Billy keeps his cool, no matter what the situation . This slangy usage dates from the mid-1900s, as do the antonyms blow one's cool and lose one's cool , as in Try not to blow your cool in front of the team , or Dad lost his cool when he saw Jim playing with matches.

(AHD)

Questions:

  • Is there evidence that the expression is from the Beat slang.

  • What are its earliest usages?

  • 3
    "Cool", as an adjective, in the sense of being calm and "unflappable" actually goes back to the 1800s, at least. And "keeping cool" would therefore be used in both the literal and figurative sense, with no "invention" required. From that, "Keep your cool" would obviously follow. The Beats adopted "cool" in a slightly different sense -- roughly "very nice" -- but the distinction is minor. – Hot Licks Apr 8 '17 at 12:11
  • @Hot Licks - it is obvious that the expression comes from the cool as an adjective. My question is about its idiomatic usage as a noun as shown above. Where that usage come from and its earliest usage examples.is it really from the Beat Slang? – user66974 Apr 8 '17 at 14:59
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    Might be useful to poke around in the Downbeat archives. Use of 'cool' seems to pop up in jazz song titles after the war. The sometimes exuberant argot of the be-bop era pre-dates but likely cross-fertilized early beat writings. While not part of be-bop, 1949's Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis begs the question: what is 'the cool'? – Icy Apr 8 '17 at 15:35
  • @Josh - Beat and jazz are intertangled. "Cool" in the sense of "calm" was applied to jazz of the (relatively) quiet coffeehouse variety (vs the raucous New Orleans variety), and then the beats appropriated the term and expanded it. This transformation was pretty much inevitable, and I'm doubtful that you an point at a specific time and/or place of origin. – Hot Licks Apr 8 '17 at 16:41
  • @Hot Licks - is what you say the result of some research or just your personal thoughts? – user66974 Apr 8 '17 at 17:58
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It's from earlier than 1966.

The best example of an earlier use seems to be the article Never Lose Your Cool New World Writing, Vol. 17 (1960) by Paul Friedman. A collection of Paul Friedman writings And If Defeated Allege Fraud: Stories By Paul Friedman also has this story and has the date "1953" after the title on page 101.

Also, The Messenger (1963) by Charles Wright:

"Well, baby," Maxine slanged, "don't blow your cool."

Also, a US music copyright catalog lists:

DON'T LOSE YOUR COOL; w & m Ronald Scalars & Celia Marshall. (c) Travis Music Co. & Ritterhouse Music, Inc.; 17Jan63 EU753541

There are much earlier examples with the similar meaning but where "cool" is modifying something, such as:

In the book The Ship and the Shore (1941) at page 133:

'Never lose your cool head in a tight situation/ Katharine Myrtle, page 243," he said, as he stepped on the rocking, swinging and bouncing planks.

Munsey's Magazine (1925)

Hungerstone, boundlessly astonished, kept his cool head, and went to her as nonchalantly as if Mrs. Hayden had never called him anything but " George."

and Sparks Goes to War Collier's 26 October 1918:

...my feeling of importance was lost as soon as I lost my cool reserve and began asking questions...

  • +1 Your first three findings seem to confirm the 1950s origin, as claimed by The Dictionary of American Slang and quoted by the OP. – Mari-Lou A Apr 11 '17 at 7:24
  • I am pretty sure that Paul Friedman was born in Brooklyn in 1937, in which case he would have been 16 in 1953—a good age for a protagonist in a story about not losing your cool, but on the young side for an author of a story published in 1953. Notably, Friedman uses a similar time setting—this time, "New York 1953"—at the beginning of another story he wrote, "A View of the Poet," published in 1967. My sense is that the "1953" in "Never Lose Your Cool" is a setting date—not an original publication date—for the story. – Sven Yargs Apr 12 '17 at 22:16
  • ...Incidentally, you can read the unobstructed first page of "Never Lose Your Cool," though not the rest of the story, on page 101 of this version of And If Defeated Allege Fraud. The copyright page indicates that the story first appeared in New World Writing, as you noted. – Sven Yargs Apr 12 '17 at 22:26
  • @SvenYargs born in Brooklyn, yes, but the 1971 book says he was on the faculty of U. of Illinois for 15 years and editor of Accent literary magazine from 1955-1960. – DavePhD Apr 13 '17 at 2:23
  • I think that the language you are quoting comes from flap copy on the dust jacket of And If Defeated Allege Fraud that is actually part of a blurb about Daniel Curley. See this view of the relevant content. – Sven Yargs Apr 13 '17 at 4:18
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I'm going to post this as an answer because it's too long for a comment, but it's really just an extended comment.

The earliest instance I found in newspapers (from newpaperarchive.com) is from August 24, 1957, in the Alpine Sul Ross Skyline paper in Alpine, TX, in a story about someone in the Civil War. "Regardless how he met his end, he was a leader who kept his cool."

Also from newspapers (as background), from about 1921 on, in articles about sports, "he kept his cool head."

1927: "kept his teammates cool and at ease"

1928: "kept his cool-headed style"

1930: "kept his K___ team cool and collected"

1930: "kept cool and used his head"

1931: "kept his cool nerve"

1936: "kept his smile cool"

1937: "kept his brain cool"

1939: "kept his head cool" (also 1945)

1949: "kept his cool nerve, his patience, and his head"

1951: "cool style of play"

1952: "kept his Preston mates cool as cucumbers while the clock ran out"

1955: "kept his head cool"

1965: "kept his campaign cool and calm"

San Rafael Daily Independent Journal, September 23, 1965, "kept his cool"

1966 and later: "kept his cool"

Many of the above cases are multiple examples--i.e., there's a wire story that ran in several or perhaps many newspapers.

I'd conclude that "cool" as a noun is a shortening of adjective form--cool head, cool nerve.

Addition:

June 1, 1958, New York Times Book Review, http://www.nytimes.com/1958/06/01/archives/pens-filled-with-protest-the-beat-generation-and-the-angry-young.html. This is a book review entitled "Pens Filled with Protest" of The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, ed. Feldman & Gartenberg (an anthology) and includes the following paragraph labelling "cool" an original word and connecting with the Beat Generation--Kerouac et.al.

Even American despair is optimistic; in Europe despair is cynical or tragic. Beat, cool, hip, swing, square are emotive and original words, and although the desire of the Beat to sharpen his own senses so that he can concentrate and improve his dialogue with existence--not social existence, however--often leads, in this volume, to outpourings of self-pity and hysteria, it also leads to something less trite in American writing.

  • Yes, I agree that cool as a noun most likely derives from earlier adjectival common usages. My question is when and by whom did that usage start? One source cites the Beat slang as a possible source of its first usage. Other sources date it later. – user66974 Apr 11 '17 at 7:22
  • 1
    newspaperarchive.com is the website. I have a subscription. It's slow, the OCR is spotty, and not very flexible in terms of strings, wild cards, and the like. Additions are made to the newspaper selection, but it's not representative--just what they acquire. I searched only for "kept his cool." – Xanne Apr 11 '17 at 7:49
  • See the addition to my answer--cool as noun connected with Beat slang, 1958. – Xanne Apr 11 '17 at 17:20
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While this may muddify rather than clarify there is a fairly long entry in Wikipedia entitled Cool (aesthetic)

Coolness is an aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance and style which is generally admired. Because of the varied and changing connotations of cool, as well as its subjective nature, the word has no single meaning. It has associations of composure and self-control (cf. the OED definition) and often is used as an expression of admiration or approval. Although commonly regarded as slang, it is widely used among disparate social groups and has endured in usage for generations.

The Timeline of Cool rolls back to the 16th century. What it does point to, in North American use at least, is both be-bop and beat use are late-comers.

1
+100

The noun form of cool in the sense of "composure" antedates the Beats (at least as that movement is generally framed). J.E. Lighter, Random House Dictionary of American Slang (1993) has this useful entry for cool as a noun:

cool n. 1. Orig. Black E. composure. {Became a fashionable term nationally 1964–66} [First cited occurrence:] 1953 in Wepman et al. The Life 119: Dig yourself, creep, don't lose your cool.

The Wepman in Lighter's 1953 citation is Dennis Wepman Ronald Newman & Murray Binderman, The Life: The Lore and Folk Poetry of the Black Hustler (1976), which contains this couplet as part of a longer lyric dated to 1953:

The Warden says to the Reverend, "Father, this man's a fool."

I said "Dig yourself, creep, don't lose your cool."

Lighter goes on to cite to other senses of cool as a noun: "a period of truce, as between street gangs" (a usage Lighter characterizes as "Underworld," with a first citation from 1958), and "stylishness, fashionable sophistication" (first citation 1961).

An Elephind search finds several early instances of cool as a noun. From "Teen Talk," in the Indianapolis [Indiana Recorder (May 14, 1955):

Playboy Jerry Campbell is coming on up in the world. Instead of pushing his ’39 Chevvy, my lad is now ’chining a ’49. Move on, young man, just don’t lose your cool. Dig what I mean?

From Edmond Bivens, "Let's Rabble," in the [Lincoln University, Pennsylvania] Lincolnian (March 10, 1956):

That clandestine affair between T. W. . . . D. B. . . . E. R. . . . "Egyptian Name" . . . J. B. . . . E. B. . . . C. M. . . . H. G. . . . and the cause of it all, :F. H." and "C. J." She lost her . . . cool!

The Indianapolis Recorder (which appears to have been a hotbed of early cool) has several other matches for "lose/losing/lost [one's] cool" from the late 1950s. Wikipedia reports that this paper, which has been in business since 1895, "holds the distinction of being published longer than any other African-American paper in the U.S. state of Indiana and is also the nation's fourth-oldest-surviving African-American newspaper." For its part Lincoln University, according to Wikipedia, "is the United States' first degree-granting historically black university." It was founded in 1854.

Thus we have fairly strong evidence to support Lighter's view that cool as a noun began as a term in Black English and was subsequently appropriated (along with a great deal else, including dig in the sense of "comprehend") by white hipsters of the Beat generation who (to hear them tell it) spent considerable time dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix.

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