Kennedy: Boomers, the ‘cool’ generation


One night last week I was admiring my new Apple watch when I decided to send a photo to my son in Birmingham, Alabama.

“Like my new watch?” I texted, fishing for a compliment.

“Yeah, that looks cool,” our 19-year-old wrote back.

His text reminded me of a thought that’s been rattling around in my head for awhile, and that is the incredible, everlasting durability of the word “cool.”

Most English modifiers come and go, rarely surviving a generation.

For example, “awesome” is already beginning to sound dated. For Baby Boomers, the use of “awesome” is an affectation anyway. It clearly belongs to Generation X and their Gen Z offspring who have been told of their totally awesome awesomeness since they were wrapped in a hospital blanket.

But cool belongs to Boomers. We own it. And we are passing it down for those who will honor its contributions to society.

By definition, Boomers were born during the mid-20th century at a time when “cool” became what one language expert has called “the most popular slang term in the English language.”

Our parents, the so-called Greatest Generation, were not “cool” people. For example, I never remember my Army sergeant father telling my bank teller mother, “Honey, why don’t you put on that cool new Tom Jones album.”

In a 2014 essay published in Humanities magazine, writer David Skinner notes: “Cool is still cool. The word, the emotional style and that whole flavor of cultural cachet remains ascendant after more than a half century.”

Right on.

According to Skinner, the modern popular usage of “cool” dates to the 1940s and 1950s, but cool has been around since Shakespeare’s time. Which is fitting because Shakespeare was a cool dude. I see you, William Shakespeare, rocking that clipped beard and popped collar.

People have been trying to supplant “cool” for decades, but you can’t kill cool. We’ve cycled through “bad,” “rad,” “gnarly,” “chill,” “dope,” “sic.” But nothing sticks.

Cool has its own shape and attitude. I imagine the two “o’s” in the middle as a pair of smoke rings. A word that tilts its head back and blows smoke rings is impervious to the cycles of hipness.

Too, cool is easy to pronounce. You barely have to move your teeth and lips to say cool, merely raising your tongue to the roof of your mouth to clip the “l” at the end.

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File Photo / Author Ian Fleming’s secret agent James Bond (here played by Sean Connery) is the king of cool.

When I think of cool, I imagine Marilyn Monroe, JFK, young Elvis, Michael Jordan, Quincy Jones. In the movie realm, the king of cool is James Bond.

I feel like some of today’s kids are trying to supplant “cool” by bending the temperature metaphor back on itself.

Won’t work.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the vocabulary of today’s youth trends toward extreme heat. These days things are “hot,” or they are “lit,” or most recently they are simply “fire.”

But, alas, “fire” doesn’t cancel cool any more than paper covers scissors.

So, speaking for Boomers everywhere, we’d appreciate it if the cool kids stopped trying to microwave our favorite word.

Just chill, OK?



Email Mark Kennedy at [email protected].

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