Cool: a fairly low temperature, neither warm nor very cold.
If this is the dictionary definition of ‘cool’ (and it is,) how in the world did the word ‘cool’ come to mean – as defined by the Urban Dictionary –- laid back, relaxed, not freaked out, knows what’s going on, anything good, stylish, popular, or otherwise positive?
Most linguists think that the use of the word cool to describe any admired aesthetic arose from Black Vernacular, an early recorded usage from a 1920s minstrel show. Threads reach back even further in history, though, to the African diaspora and refer, according to some scholars, to a pillar of spiritual wisdom and self-control in some African cultures of the 15th century.
The bigger question, though, is how we judge cool and why it rules so much of our lives. Is the desire to be cool and associate only with cool things simply a strategy for avoiding ridicule? Is it a form of status that we humans seem so conditioned to achieve and will invent and impose on ourselves as a measure of belonging? Are we comfortable with ‘cool’ being an expression of differences, only those who have monetary and social access able to achieve ‘cool’ and thereby creating a social playbook in which we can assign winners and losers, in-groups and out-groups? And, once we’re ‘in,’ is our place only secure and worthwhile when we can keep others out?
While coolness is not the exclusive territory of adolescence, teens do seem to have a corner on the market. I certainly remember being a teenager. I think most of us older folks can. And what we generally remember is the desperation we felt to belong to the right categories, to associate with the right people. Coolness isn’t new. But with the broad flattening effect of media standards, the uniformity of coolness defined by fashion magazines, cable t.v., and youtube videos, the ability to define coolness for ourselves becomes more and more difficult and challenging.
It’s hard to know ahead of time what will be considered cool. If clothing manufacturers or book publishers or art galleries could predict coolness, then the category itself would be so accessible as to become essentially meaningless.
And that is also the conundrum for the library as we design programs for teens. Our job is to utilize our resources to entertain, inform and enlighten all members of our community, to make programs and materials widely available and to design effective delivery systems for their engagement. And, yet, how does a teen make the decision to participate? Is it because a book sounds especially interesting? A film something you’ve always wanted to see? An art project the perfect activity for a hot summer afternoon?
Probably not. We all know what the likely criteria will be – is it cool?