Monday, January 5, 2009

Through Being Cool

I'm attempting an experiment in word recovery: I'm bringing back the word "swell."

You remember "swell," don't you? You certainly heard it in Pleasantville as a stand-in for staid, bland 50s culture. Indeed, from the 1920s through the 1950s, swell grew from being a mildly rebellious adjective, an affront to Victorian discipline, to become an all-purpose affirmation of that which is good.

However, in an essay published in American Speech, Robert L. Moore identifies the mid-1960s as a turning point, the time when swell became, well, uncool. Swell became associated with cocktails when the kids were turning onto pot. Swell was World War II while Vietnam raged in the jungles and on television. No longer trapped as a beatnik affectation with its suggestions of funky jazz authenticity, cool marked the baby boomers' time to come of age.

I grew up in the world of cool. It was like air; I breathed it unconsciously. But by the mid-70s, cool had lost its own cachet as faint defiance and had settled into comfortable middle age. I'm pretty sure the first time I heard something being called cool was something my mom said. By now, cool is pretty much anything that doesn't suck.

That said, I never thought much about the meaning of cool until a faculty colleague asked me with disarming directness just what the word means. I stammered out an answer, something about social acceptability. I suppose I made sense, but as my students know, I'm the last person to say that I'm cool, or that I have some insight into its meaning.

Maybe that's why I want to bring back the word "swell." But there's more to it than that. Let's consider the two words more closely.

Cool signifies a degree of detachment, a kind of social distance. When I was a kid, those fellows who leaned against a wall, steadied by one cocked knee, were cool. The ones who didn't seem to need the affirmation of others were cool. Cool is a performance of knowing the right pose, knowing the right attitude, knowing the right fashion.

The problem is that while a pair of blue jeans was once cool, today's hip threads (even jeans) come much more dearly. Cool demands a complex economy, which can get pretty expensive, and one's dues are never fully paid to join this club. Flip through any issue of Esquire or Cosmo and you'll know what I mean.

Swell seems so much more appropriate for our era of economic uncertainty than cool. Swell suggests an almost libertine pleasure, a glandular expansion that mocks deprivation. In a previous incarnation, swell referred to high social status. Often it was used as a noun: "He's a real swell." But I refer to the more recent popular usage, a cheerful optimism that comes with little cost. Cocktails were once swell; now they're cool. Malts have always been swell (though anything can be cool if you're willing to pay enough).

Cool is confidence that masks alienation. Swell is confidence, plain and simple. And it's much more fun to say.

So join the club. Trying weaving "swell" into your everyday speech. Sprinkle it among your positive adjectives for fun, for kitsch, for old time's sake. Let's start a swell revolution!

Learn More: Moore, R.L. (2004). We're cool, mom and dad are swell: Basic slang and generational shifts in values. American Speech, 79(1), 59-86 -- also, here's a news article written by Moore to summarize the academic article.


detroit dog said...

Well, that's just swell, Andy.


Happy New Year!

Lissie said...

Golly gee, that WAS swell, Andy.... ;0)