I’ve written before about how we use words and phrases associated with temperature, and specifically heat, in the English language. Today, I was struck by the word cool, and how it seems to contradict, yet also agree with, some of these words and phrases.
If we consider that we often associate heat with excessive passion and anger, coolness makes sense, describing someone who doesn’t get angry or overly excited easily; who keeps calm and doesn’t get stressed or worried.
And yet, it’s a short step from there to being cold: unfriendly, uncaring and unkind. Things get very confusing when we start talking about blood. Being hot-blooded means getting angry and excited very quickly, and in contrast, a cold-blooded individual is cruel, emotionless, pitiless. They’re at opposite ends of a spectrum, and equally undesirable because of it. One can be harmful to themselves and others by being too quick to anger. On the other hand, one can be so devoid of feeling for other people that they’re willing to do any number of harmful things to them, or fail to intervene, simply because the plight of others stirs no emotion in them.
But to have sangfroid is something quite different: it means to remain calm and rational in difficult or dangerous circumstances. Quite a desirable characteristic then, yet its meaning in its language of origin (French) is cold blood. But there’s still a logic to that. There are some situations in life in which it’s helpful to be cold-blooded and without emotion, and a great deal more situations where it’s preferable to show a little more emotion.
Which takes us back to cool. And when you think about it, it’s not really so strange that it’s so close to coldness. I think it says a lot about how we think about the concept of coolness. Sure, we might envy someone who has that ability not to care about what people think about them, that easy self-confidence. But it doesn’t take much for that to be pushed slightly too far into a lack of consideration for others, and arrogance. And isn’t that what makes coolness so attractive? It’s balanced on a knife edge, and there’s an irresistible tension there. We know that the cool individual is so close to transgressing a lot of our conventional ideas of how a person should behave, and yet they maintain their poise, and don’t go too far into coldness, keeping the energy of that tension humming along, and making themselves stand out from the majority who couldn’t dream of achieving such a feat.
I wouldn’t presume to come up with a quick and easy definition of coolness, but I think that tension is at least a large part of it.