The Grammarphobia Blog

Birth of the cool

Q: My impression is that “cool” in modern usage (“cool it” or “she’s cool”) derives from black culture. Now, of course, it’s been appropriated by the general culture and everyone uses it. Am I right?

A: Black slang has enriched English in ways that most people (including many African Americans) don’t realize. And it goes way beyond “cool.”

Mention African-American slang to the man in the street and he might come up with a scant handful of recent coinages: “dis,” “chill,” “cred,” “phat,” “bling,” and “gangsta.”

But the story is much bigger than that. BE (linguist-speak for Black English) has been contributing to the general American vocabulary, both standard and slang, since the 19th century.

“Cool” is a good example.

The use of it as a noun meaning composure (as in “keeping one’s cool”) was first recorded in 1953 and originated in Black English, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

But the dictionary, edited by Jonathan Lighter, says “cool” had been used among African Americans as early as 1933 in another sense, as an adjective meaning exciting, enjoyable, or superlative (as in “the coolest drummer alive”).

Here’s a sampling of popular terms, both old and new, that were either invented or adapted to colorful new uses by speakers of Black English.

Words:  “hip,” “dig,” “soul,” “funky,” “gig,” “jam,” “jive,” “boogie,” “boogie-woogie,” “corny,” “heavy” (amazing or admirable), “bad” (that is, good), “jones” (an addiction or habit), “do” (hairdo), and “lame” (foolish).

Also, “righteous” (honorable), “attitude” (also ’tude), “girlfriend” (as a form of address between women), “homeboy,” “ ’hood,” “yo,” “ride” (a skateboard), “uptight,” “props” (respect), “man” (used in direct address), and “the man” (the police or white society).

Phrases: “get with it,” “bad-mouth,” “chill out,” “talk trash” (to lie), “strut your stuff,” “chump change” (small change), “kick back” (relax), “live large” (that is, extravagantly), “do your (own) thing,” “get-go” (the beginning), “go down” (to take place), “get down” (to work), “nitty gritty,” and “rip off” (to exploit).

Other expressions: “Right on!” … “Don’t go there” … “What’s up with that?” … “You go, girl!” … “You’re the man” (expressing admiration) … “Say what?” … “Tell it like it is” … “What goes around comes around.”

Gone are the days when commentators on English dissed the language of the streets. It has crossed over into mainstream use.

Margaret G. Lee made that point in a 1999 article in the journal American Speech called “Out of the Hood and into the News: Borrowed Black Verbal Expressions in a Mainstream Newspaper” (1999).

She notes that slang in general, not just African-American slang, “is no longer perceived as a low, vulgar, nonmeaning language of the vagrant or illiterate classes as it was in the 1800s and early 1900s.”

The use of slang by mainstream journalists and other educated professionals, she adds, “indicates its respect and status among some outgroup speakers.”

As two former journalists and “outgroup speakers” who appreciate slang, we couldn’t agree more.

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