Ben Zimmer in the New York Times Magazine:
The Times Literary Supplement, the erudite British weekly, isn’t the first place you would expect to find an outbreak of cool. But for a recent stretch of a few months, its letters page was home to a protracted debate over exactly how cool got cool.
It all started in January, when Toby Lichtig reviewed “Journey by Moonlight,” a 1937 novel by the Hungarian writer Antal Szerb that has recently been translated into English by Len Rix. Lichtig gave a thumbs up to Rix’s rendering, but he complained about the text’s occasional anachronisms, particularly the use of cool “in its contemporary sense” — that is, in the “stylish” or “admirable” meaning popularized by the cool cats and chicks of the postwar era and exemplified by the all-purpose expression of appreciation or approval, “That’s cool.”
A parade of nine T.L.S. readers questioned how modern the “contemporary sense” of cool actually is, pulling out 19th- and early-20th-century quotations from writers as diverse as Wilkie Collins and T. E. Lawrence to support the idea that our current understanding of cool is not so new after all. E. D. Hirsch Jr., the American author of “Cultural Literacy,” even chipped in with a line from Abraham Lincoln (“That is cool”). The whole discussion, unfortunately, drifted into a muddle of anecdotes without any firm grip on the semantics of cool.