The Oxford English Dictionary defines cool as “fashionably attractive or impressive,” but that’s a pretty a fusty description for such a slick and revered attitude, lifestyle and state of being. Originally adopted by African-American jazz musician circles in the 1930s, the word gained broader traction in the ’40s and early ’50s with the beatnik movement (Jack Kerouac referenced “cool cat” in On the Road). By the late ’50s and ’60s, just about everyone knew that cool described something intensely good. But what was cool before cool? And what other words do we use to label something cool in more modern times? Read on to find out!
If something was alright, alright, alright, you’d probably label it as Jake in the early 20th century. The word’s cool factor dropped off by the ’60s, but the actual boy’s name has lived on.
1920s: Bee’s Knees and The Berries
The 1920s were rife with nonsense (but fun to say) slang expressions to define the very best. While these were some of the most popular sayings, other terms included cat’s meow, pig’s wings, elephant’s manicure and way too many other bizarre options that haven’t kept their cool a century later.
Although in use from the tail end of the 19th century, describing something wonderful as just ducky was peak relevant in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Of course, this sweet and wholesome term was eventually replaced by edgier youth slang just a few decades later.
1940s: On the Beam
By the 1940s, the word cool was starting to be used in the way we know and love it today. But if you hadn’t been introduced to it yet, you might say this catchphrase to describe something on the right track.
1950s: Neat and Swell
Teens were using cool by the ‘50s, and also square to describe something decidedly not cool. More clean cut youths, meanwhile, favored these two wholesome words.
By the '60s, Hippie culture had taken hold and this newly invented word became used to highlight anything fashionable, exciting and, in general, youth-culture oriented.
1970s: Funky and Decent
Everything in the '70s was funky – from funk music to funky clothes, calling something funky basically meant calling something on trend. Decent, while a seemingly low-key stamp of approval, was another popular way to sign off on something cool.
1980s: Fly, Wicked, Tubular, Awesome and Radical
The '80s is when slang really took off – along with it, a spate of new words earned their cool stripes. What’s particularly notable about this collection of words is that unlike past decades, they were all previously established terms that simply gained a new definition as the 20th century began winding down.
The ‘90s brought the very beginning of the shorthand we all know and love (or abhor, grammar nerds!) when texting, sending messages or chatting online. While many words were shortened or buried in acronyms, fat was given a remix with two extra letters and a lot more style.
What’s cooler than being cool? Well, if you asked Outkast, they’d say ice cold. But in reality, most rising millennials adopted the word sweet to describe the very best things in life.
2010s: Swag and Slay
In a world where image is everything, words like swag and slay are used to describe people that serve up peak coolness.