by Samantha Walla
Slang terms may come and go, but students have referred to everything from movies to music to having a class cancelled as “cool” for years. Where did this term originate, and is it more than just a staple of teenage vernacular?
Eoin O’Connell, Ph.D., kicked off this semester’s first Dante Seminar at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 4 in the Alumni Room of O’Malley Library. Newly returned from sabbatical, the associate professor and chairperson of the philosophy department explored the true meaning of “cool” through a lense of virtue ethics.
Before O’Connell began, Rocco Marinaccio welcomed the mingling crowd of new and old professors before the event began and encouraged everyone to attend the two remaining seminars of the semester, which will be given by Deirdre O’Leary and Claire Nolte.
Although the Dante Seminar is open to all members of the Manhattan College community, Wednesday’s meeting was comprised almost entirely of professors. The group meets six times a year, featuring scholarly discussions led by its members as well as an annual guest speaker. The seminar owes its name to the original purpose of the group: to discuss Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” in 1979.
“Virtue seems an old fashioned concept,” began O’Connell. “[But] philosophers talk about it because it is fundamental.”
O’Connell also noted that virtues regard total character as opposed to emotion, and that the word “cool” in particular is often used to describe admiration. However, being an admired trait is not enough for it to be a virtue, as “vicious people admire vicious traits.”
Before assessing “cool” as a virtue, O’Connell noted that understanding the origin and definition of the word is essential. When contrasted with warm, cool has a negative connotation, as the word implies that the person whom it is describing is emotionally detached. Alternatively, when contrasted with hot, cool takes a positive connotation, meaning that the person described is under control as opposed to being hot-headed.
Surprisingly, there is very little scholarly work done on the term, as O’Connell is only able to point to one article, “We’re Cool, Mom and Dad are Swell: Basic Slang and Generational Shifts in Values” by Robert L. Moore. In this paper, Moore writes: “the slang term cool that emerged in the 1930s elaborated on the basic metaphor of subdued emotion adding in particular the qualities of knowingness, detachment, and control.”
O’Connell tackled each aspect of Moore’s thesis individually to complete the working definition of “cool.” Control is one’s ability to balance their person and their environment to protect themselves. Self control is often debated as being a virtue. Detachment implies emotional distance and the disengagement of the self from the rest of the world. O’Connell also references Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” in which sunglasses are utilized to create a feeling of distance and detachment from the ugliness of the world. Knowingness is simply having inside knowledge.
The origin of the word “cool” may be attributed to Lester Young, one of the most influential jazz saxophonists of all time, who used the word to refer to a state of mind, meaning calm and in control.
“It might be the right answer but not necessarily the most interesting answer,” said O’Connell.
The speaker then went on to discuss the concept of “cool” in the context of black Americans under white supremacy and its many complexities.
Cool often comes with confidence, of which there are different types. There is confidence of bravado and confidence of happiness, the latter occurs when one is in harmony with their environment. In the context of an African American’s “cool” under white supremacy, the environment of a cool person is not comfortable.
Following O’Connell’s presentation, professors responded with comments, critiques and questions to further develop the presentation. The impact of the seminar did not end there, as attendees came away with a hefty reading list, as O’Connell cited the works of Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Norman Mailer among others.
The next Dante seminar is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. on Nov. 2 with presenter Deirdre O’Leary of the English department.