February 05, 2007

Parents will never be cool

The parent-child interaction observed by Mark Liberman in the comic strip "Stone Soup" struck me as awfully familiar. After searching my memory banks I realized I had come across a very similar account of a teenage girl cringing at one of her parents using the word "cool." The incident was reported by the columnist Russell Baker... in 1965.

Baker's "Observer" column in the New York Times of Apr. 11, 1965 delved into the faddish "code words" of the time, both among Washington cognoscenti and teenage slang-slingers. He uses second-person narrative to describe what we presume is his own daughter's discomfort with her unhip father:

Your teen-age daughter asks what you think of her "shades," which you are canny enough to know are her sunglasses, and you say, "Cool," and she says, "Oh, Dad, what a spaz!" (Translation: "You're strictly from 23-skidoo.")

I quoted this passage last April in a post about the history of the word spaz. At the time I cited Baker's column as illustrative of the shift in the American usage of spaz, from its original sense of 'spastic or physically uncoordinated person' to something more like 'nerdy, weird or uncool person.' But the daughter's reaction to her dad's uses of cool is also notable. Just as Holly of "Stone Soup" complains that her mother is too "out of it" to use "I'm cool with that," the daughter of Baker's column disdains her dad's attempt to stay au courant by dropping the word cool in conversation. In both cases, maladroit usage of the word cool instantly marks the parent as uncool, from the critical daughter's perspective.

Baker suggests his lack of mastery in the in-group code of teenagers is due to the ephemeral nature of slang:

Adolescents change the teen-age code faster than a cryptologist could possibly crack it. In the Washington adolescent code zone, for example, "neat," "cool" and "tough" — all meaning the same thing — have come and gone over the last twelvemonth.

Even if cool had fallen out of favor among D.C. teens of the mid-'60s, it would, like skinny ties, eventually make a comeback. Certainly by the late '70s and early '80s, cool had reestablished itself as evergreen slang. Neat has done a good job of sticking around, too. Of Baker's three examples of adolescent ephemera, only the approbative use of tough has fallen by the wayside.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 5, 2007 12:01 AM