Friday, August 13, 2010

Fridge Detail: How Cool Is Cool?

fridge detail
I was reading a thread in an online forum and noticed that several people replied to a particular comment with that ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all adjective: 'Cool'. I have occasionally done so myself and can understand its attraction: a pleasantly retro, street-smart throwback to the Beats, or earlier, to the 'stay cool' 1950s, the jazzy 40s. It is one of those words with a variable temperature, depending on its user's tone of voice: from (often high pitched) red hot, gorgeous, superb, 'wicked', etc. to (flat, low-pitched) lukewarm, so-so, okay, a shorthand for 'can we talk about something else now?'

Reading about it on the excellent World Wide Words, I was only slightly surprised to learn that its roots (as a slang term) can be traced farther still,'a subtle transformation of a standard English form that goes back to Beowulf, in a rather literary metaphor for being unexcited, calm or dispassionate.' Apparently it resurfaced and became fashionable in the 18th Century, with those still-used phrases 'cool as a cucumber' and 'keeping a cool head', and began to shift into its current (more positive) meaning in the mid 20th century.

I think a large part of its attraction is in the sound, that refreshingly breezy double-vowel blowing through two portholes, and its tactility: hinged shut on the tip of the tongue's L, like licking a stamp, posting a seal of approval.

Fine and dandy, but I'm a little weary of its ubiquity. In fact, I've probably been weary of it for decades, like the American-Irish cousin I once shared a house with in the 1970s; whenever some visitor thought something 'really cool', my cousin's zippy retort was invariably 'Yeah, man, put it in the ice-box!' So, to resurrect an anachronistic antonym from the deep-freeze, I'm beginning to find 'cool' distinctly uncool.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Saint Patrick On Nipples

I've just started 'Ireland: A History', by Thomas Bartlett. I'd read a couple of reviews and it sounded interesting, the kind of history I might actually read through (instead of making my way through the first 50 pages then setting it down to get a cup of coffee, never to raise it again). The reviewers noted, however, that he is rather scanty on the earlier bits, covering the pre-medieval period (431, St. Patrick's arrival, to 1541: Protestant Ireland) in under 80 pages. But I am greatly encouraged by passages such as the following, in which Bartlett quotes then comments on an odd phrase from the writings of Patrick (about his initial sojourn in Ireland, as a slave):
Lastly, as an aside, Patrick discloses than when he sought to flee Ireland on the ship, he entered into terms with the sailors, but that he 'refused, for fear of god, to suck their nipples'. This startling remark – given matter of factly – has been a cause of some embarrassment to Patrician enthusiasts, but it has to be seen in the context of Patrick's detestation of 'cults or idols and abominations' which he had dedicated his life to overthrowing. What Patrick was doing was pointing to the prevalence of pagan practices – sucking nipples was a way to pledge loyalty – and in doing so he was making the obvious point that the Ireland in which he had been a slave was largely pagan.
It is for revelations such as these that I persist in my lifelong battle to educate myself.