An interesting article by Carl Wilson (apparently the start of a month-long series) in Slate looks at the word “cool” in its past and current incarnations. It’s a lot more readable and to the point than jazz critic Ted Gioia’s fundamentally trivial book The Birth and Death of the Cool, but I found myself hung up on his comment
You’d be unlikely to use other decades-old slang—groovy or rad or fly—to endorse any current cultural object, at least with a straight face, but somehow cool remains evergreen.
As it happens, I was just recently having a conversation about the word nerd. I have a very clear memory that when the ’50s nostalgia wave broke in the mid-1970s (so I was about 8 years old), I encountered the word in TV programs like Happy Days as an antiquated idiom. I had never heard anyone use the word, and I associated it with my parents’ childhoods. When I was a student the prevailing word for someone too bookish to be cool (such as myself) was weenie. As late as 1993, according to an OED citation, Scientific American felt the need to explain
‘Nerd’..is movie shorthand for scientists, engineers and assorted technical types who play chess, perhaps, or the violin.
And I remember encountering the word again in the self-righteous name of the Society of Nerds and Geeks (SONG), an undergraduate club that popped up at Harvard about 1989 (when I was a graduate student in mathematics). This was a self-conscious attempt to co-opt these words, which at the time were exclusively terms of abuse, along the lines of the way what was formerly the sexual invert community, or whatever, renamed itself gay, and later queer. Harvard mathematics graduate student Leonid Fridman, who advised the club, published an op-ed on Jan 11, 1990 in the NY Times arguing that the popular disdain for the brainy and bookish would put the US at a disadvantage in competing with its economic and military competitors. (Remember, this was still the Cold War.) The article concluded with this plea:
Until the words “nerd” and “geek” become terms of approbation and not derision, we do not stand a chance.
This dream has come to fulfilment more than could have been imagined in the linguistic sense, but my impression is that there has been little change in the effective social status of academically-inclined American youth. Fridman’s NY Times op-ed is mysteriously unfindable in the Times online archive, so I have copied the text below: Continue reading “Cool nerds”