Swell, Gas, Neato: How We Said Cool Through the Decades

2 min read

What’s cool is changing faster than ever; blink and you’ll miss the latest trending topic on Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok. Equally ever-evolving? The words used to express your appreciation or affection for something .

It’s not easy to stay on top of the exact word you should be using to describe something as "on fleek," "amaze," or "snatched" — the internet is pretty fickle toward the appropriate slang of the day. While it’s risen above its former slang status, even "cool" wasn’t used for describing anything but the temperature until the 1940s when Black jazz musicians started using the expression "cool cat."

While cool seems here to stay, other terms haven’t held their cool. Here are some of the most popular ways to grant a personal stamp of approval over the last century.

20th-Century Cool

Bee’s Knees

The 1920s had some seriously cute ways to express coolness. You could call something the "cat’s pajamas" or declare, “It’s the berries!” In the ’20s, there was no shortage of slightly silly ways to declare your enthusiasm.

Swell

This charmingly retro term of endearment was originally used to describe anything that grew or increased in size. In the 1930s, however, folks began applying it to anyone (or anything) they thought was fine and dandy. The term lasted in popularity until it started being used a bit more cynically — picture a 1950s bully calling someone a "swell guy" with a snarl.

Gas

It makes sense that in an era when owning a car became more commonplace, and the oil industry began to boom, the term gas became synonymous with cool. In the 1940s and ’50s, teens would call each other and their favorite activities a gas, channeling a sense of effervescent energy.

Neato

Neat was co-opted by teens in the 1950s as a way to describe something hip, rather than clean and tidy. By the ’60s, the kids had taken things a step further, adding a playful “oh” sound at the end to express their delight.

Far out

The psychedelic ’60s were a time to expand your horizons. Labeling something "far out" or "groovy" spoke to the counterculture — things were definitely cool if they were (far) outside the norm of what the older generations appreciated.

Gnarly

If the ’60s was all about expanding your horizons, the ’70s and ’80s were about pushing past boundaries altogether, sometimes with extreme surf-inspired slang. Expressions like "radical" and "gnarly" worked as verbal ways to tip your hat to someone or something admirable.

Awesome

First appearing on the scene in the ’80s, "awesome" gained traction after appearing in teen flicks such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High. "Awesome" ultimately overtook similar words such as "tubular," and is still widely used to this day.

Phat

Hip-hop culture influenced, and largely defined, coolness beginning in the ’90s. From fashion to slang to technology (boomboxes, anyone?), "phat" was just one example of calling something cool; "fly," "fresh," "dope," and "tight" all had their origins in rap lyrics and trickled into mainstream slang.

Cool for a New Millennium

Hot

Paris Hilton spoke in the aughties, and the world listened. Declaring, “That’s hot” was a direct role reversal to the idea of coolness, even if the meanings were identical. While "hot" is still an acceptable alternative to "cool," try out the equally sizzling term "straight fire" to describe anything trendy.

Lit

This recent way to say cool is also on the fiery spectrum. Lit has been re-popularized over the last decade by rappers who originally used the term as a synonym for intoxicated, but the meaning has become synonymous with anything exciting, enjoyable, or excellent.

Photo credit: Paul Fiedler/ Unsplash

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