Marilyn Monroe in the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch

Marilyn Monroe in the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch.

01-08-2019

The best way to keep in touch with what’s happening in popular culture is to be in contact with young people, which isn’t always possible for some of us. I’ve managed it in recent months because I’ve been giving twice-weekly sessions of English conversation to the young nephew of Xisca Caimari of the Ultima Hora advertising staff.

His name is David Callejo (just turned 21) and he’s training to be an aviation cabin crew member. His oral exams are in English and he has to brush up on idiomatic use of the language and his pronunciation.

So I get him to talk and correct him where necessary and try to guide him through the vagaries of English pronunciation. When learning Spanish, we know how words are pronounced because of the various accents over the vowels.
But we don’t have accents in English and although there are certain spelling rules that indicate how words are pronounced, we don’t know them unless we have studied philology and grammar at university level.

So when a Spaniard sees the the word ‘flood’ he pronounces it as ‘flow-odd’ until told that in this case (but not always) the double ‘o’ is like a ‘u’. It’s not at all easy. But neither are accents above the vowels when you come across them for the first time in Spanish and don’t know how they work.

When I was telling David that WiFi should be pronounced ‘wifey’ (the abbreviation means wireless-fidelity) although no English person I know in Palma pronounces it like that, his face lit up when I wrote ‘wifey’ on his notebook.

He knows the word from the song of a Catalán singer called Bad Gyal (pronounced ‘gell’) in which she sings “I don’t wanna be a wifey.” He’s very much into all the latest pop music styles which he hears on YouTube.

The most recent one is ‘reggaeton’ and two of those I have never heard of are ‘dance-hall’ and ‘dance-floor’. There are literally dozens of styles only the very young know about and dance to. David is a superb dancer. He and his brother Marcos (a promising young film-maker) did a skit on top-of-the-pops Spanish singer Rosalia (Marcos in the role of Rosalia) at Xisca’s recent wedding. David was as good as any backing dancers you see on pop song videos.

David picks up a great deal of his English from watching pop song videos on YouTube and among those words is ‘cool’. In my experience, which is limited to what I hear in Palma, most British people seem to have dropped the cool word.

But from what little I see of reality programmes on American TV, cool is very much alive and kicking in all walks of American life. Absolutely anything can be cool — there are no limitations of any kind. David is also like that.

He thinks it’s cool that I can eat at a restaurant and then get reimbursed for what the meal costs. But in the end it’s pretty much like many other jobs: having eaten, I then have to go home and write something interesting about the meal. And that is not always as easy-peasy as it sounds. But I’m not complaining. I also think it’s a pretty cool job.

Words are sometimes like women’s fashions: they are in style for a while, then they disappear and then they make a comeback decades later. That’s what’s been happening to cool for hundreds of years.

The word was popular for a while in the early 1950s when it was used in jazz circles. Cool described the music of certain modern jazzmen whose playing was somewhat laid back: cool jazz was the opposite of hot jazz.

West Coast jazzman Gerry Mulligan was cool and so was tenor sax Stan Getz, to name just two saxophonists. And perhaps trumpet player Miles Davis was the coolest of the modern jazzmen.

In the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe has a memorable line in which she uses cool. When a martini is described to her she coos: “Ooh, that sounds cool. I think I’ll have a glass of that — a big tall one.” But as the New York of the movie was having a heatwave at that moment, it could be that Billy Wilder was using the word in its literal sense.

The hippies later took over cool and made it their own. “Like cool, man,” they’d say as they passed round a joint. Anything that pleased them was “like cool, man”. The phrase allowed you to convey all kinds of nuances with the same three words.

But in England cool went out of fashion for years and then came surging back in the 1990s when I was forever hearing it n conversation of reading it newspapers. However, at that time I wasn’t always sure what the user meant. It seemed the word had different meanings for different people.

There were times when the meaning seemed to be ‘trendy’ but on other occasions the speaker seemed to be using it to say ‘okay’.

In one newspaper, Boy George was quoted as saying: “If anyone thinks I’m a has-been, that’s cool because it’s better than a never-was.” That sounded as if he were saying okay or fine.

In another newspaper a pop music guru was quoted as saying about singer Tom Jones’s new popularity at the time: “His son Mark became his manager and dedicated himself to making Tom Jones cool again.” I read that as meaning trendy or fashionable.

Baby Spice Emma Bunton was quoted in another interview as saying: ”I’ve seen Geri a couple of times since she left and everything’s cool. But I found it really hard when she left.” Once again, fine or okay seems to be the meaning of cool.

A record label insider said of a possible Spice Girls comeback: ”For the original Spice Girls fans it would be excruciatingly uncool to be reminded of what they listened to as kids.” Uncouth would perhaps be a better word in this case.

In those days I got the impression most people were using cool to mean trendy or fashionable, partly because trendy (until then widely used) was becoming a bit passé.
On the other hand I also had the feeling that it was becoming cool to say cool — and let the other person work out what you really meant. In the old days it was so much easier. Both the jazzman and the hippie knew that cool meant laid back — and so did we. And that was like cool, man.