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Abe Lincoln, cool cat?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April September 21, 2008 10:01 AM

It would be so cool if Abe Lincoln had been the first person to use cool to mean something like, you know, cool. That seems to be what William Safire, my wordie counterpart at the New York Times, is suggesting in today's column.

"Earliest use I can find in an ironic context -- meaning 'really something' -- is in the political speech" Lincoln gave on Feb. 27, 1860, says Safire:

The visitor from Illinois took on those who were threatening secession if an anti-slavery Republican were elected: "In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear and mutters through his teeth, 'Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!' "

But in the tradition of Honest Abe, I have to record a dissent. Lincoln's "That is cool" means something more specific than "that's really something"; today he might say "What chutzpah!" His highwayman analogy, in fact, is very like the classic example of chutzpah, the guy who kills his parents and then pleads for mercy on the grounds that he's an orphan.

But this sense of cool was not Lincoln's invention, nor even unusual. The 1852 edition of Noah Webster's dictionary has it: "3. Not hasty; deliberate; as, a cool falsehood or deception. Hence, 4. Impudent in a high degree, as when speaking of some trick, pretension, &c., we say 'that is cool.' "

Thanks to Google Books, it's easy to find the usage in 19th-century works. In Evelyn Benson's "Ashcombe Churchyard" (1862), for example, a man rebukes his sister for referring to a trouser pocket. "Upon my word," said George, "that is cool! let me never hear you dare to mention that part of a gentleman's dress, Lucy."

And the online Oxford English Dictionary, which just this month published an updated entry for cool, dates this use of the word -- "deliberately audacious or impudent in making a proposal, demand, or assumption" -- to 1723.

Lincoln's cool may well have led, decades later, to our modern cool -- so long-lived it's now labeled "colloquial" instead of "slang." But our cool isn't clearly attested till 1918, when the OED lists "*a cool kid" as one way of "expressing admiration for another's cleverness or cunning." Lincoln's cool may have been effective speechifying, but it was no novelty to his audience.

Update 2:30 p.m.: Mr. Verb has questions about "cool" too, and about some of the column's other assertions.

The photo of Lincoln, from the Slave Heritage Resource Center, is labeled as dating from the 1860 Cooper Union appearance where Lincoln said "That is cool."

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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