January 13, 2004

Why cool remains hot

This story from the Baltimore Sun quotes Donna Jo Napoli as observing that cool is "underspecified", and paraphrases her to the effect that "the more unspecified a word is, the more staying power it has." I wonder if that's true. I'm not trying to suggest that it isn't true, it kind of makes sense, but I just don't know. Is there some way to quantify specificity, so that we could investigate the correlation between specificity and the length of time a word is in active use? For that matter, is there a good way to quantify lexicographic "staying power"? Has anyone ever studied this systematically?

Note: Donna Jo is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore as well as a widely-read children's author -- here is her academic CV. She's largely responsible for the fact that Swarthmore, last I checked, had more linguistics majors in proportion to its undergraduate population than any other American college or university. So if Donna Jo says that underspecified words stay around longer, I'm paying attention. I just wonder, is all.

[Update: since the cited article requires registration on a site that promises to send registrants spam, here's the full passage quoting Prof. Napoli:

Of the word cool, "I can say one thing about it; it has not stood still," says Donna Jo Napoli, a Swarthmore College professor of linguistics.

When she was growing up, cool meant "wow!" says Napoli, also the author of young adult novels and the mother of five. Today, cool is used more often to mean, "OK, I'm fine with that," Napoli says. In other words, 'I'm cool with that.'

As Napoli suggests, cool gets around. There's "way cool," "cool beans," "That's cool," "Keep your cool" and "too cool."

Cool is an example of an "underspecified word," Napoli says. The less specific a word, the more meanings it can have. Assassinate is an example of a "highly determined" word, one that can't be used in too many contexts, she says. The more unspecified a word is, the more staying power it has, she says.


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 13, 2004 03:06 PM