Perfectly Good Words

9 March 2001

Not so long ago, there was a Morphism about bad words. It generated a minor amount of controversy; that is to say, the people whose bad words I used wrote to me in high dudgeon, defending their words. But I have some more to say about words, and it's not just in hopes of getting mail.

There are two words that are being overused in American English. Well, probably more than two, and when I think about it ("Hottie," ugh! Any use is too many uses!) I can get peeved about others. But I'm going to limit myself to two, and they're good ones: smart and cool.

This does not sound particularly radical, but I feel it needs to be pointed out: not everyone is intelligent. It's true that some of us are smart in different ways -- people who struggle over new languages may be brilliantly able to do integral transformations, and vice versa. But I would submit that "intelligence" is not an all-purpose term for things we admire.

The basic mistake, of course, confuses being intelligent with being knowledgeable. While it may help to be the former when one is attempting to become the latter, there are certainly no guarantees. And as for trying to reverse the implication, well, forget it. Sometimes people who are not particularly intelligent work really hard to learn something. That's good in a different way. They don't have to be smart to do something valuable.

But then there are the people who take a grain of truth -- people who have intelligence in one type of application may not have it in another -- and twist it all up. I'm talking about the folks who go on about "emotional intelligence" or even (God help us) "kinetic intelligence." For the former, it seems that they usually mean either charm or empathy. Guess what? Charm and empathy are perfectly good words. So is "charisma." There are, in fact, lots of good words that deal with interpersonal relationships. We shouldn't ditch them just because they don't contain the magic "intelligence." And the same goes for the other "intelligences." What's wrong with being coordinated, or athletic? What's wrong with being musical or artistic or any of a number of other things that may or may not coexist with "intelligence" but are certainly not synonyms for it?

And then we come to "cool." I think one of the problems is that cool has been a slang term, so wringing a firm definition out of it is even harder than precisely defining any other word in a language (which is plenty hard all by itself). So "cool" is used to mean "good." I use it myself that way. But I think there should be something more to it than that. "Cool" should have an anti-authoritarian edge, a little bit of rebellion.

The problem comes in when authority figures (parents, teachers, advertising agencies) decide that they want to encourage something, and dub it "cool." I had cousins whose teachers made them do a little rap every day in grade school, while snapping their fingers: "As a rule, school's cool!" Well, no. In fact, it's not. It may be interesting, if you're lucky. It may be legally necessary, if you're of the proper age. It may be helpful in your later life, again if you're lucky. But "cool" it is not. And telling kids it is will probably just convince the same kids that you're pretty clueless. Not that a lot of American public school officials have had problems with that.

Disclaimer here: I'm not anti-teacher. I had some fabulous teachers. I'm now friends with some new teachers who may be fabulous -- I've never seen them doing their job, so I don't want to assume. One of my major complaints with the educational system as it stands is that it gets in the way of good teachers doing their jobs as they would like to, and I know at least one who's retiring from it way too early, in part because of that. I am against some teachers, especially the ones who put the snotty little NEA stickers on their bumpers: "If you can read this, thank a teacher!" Okay: thanks, Mom, Dad. The implication that civilization would crumble without the teacher's union gets under my skin a little bit. End of disclaimer.

Even parenthood bothers me a little. It seems like many of the products that companies are marketing to new parents fall under the marketing scheme of, "Look! You're still cool, even though you're the parent now!" It plays on the fears of new parents in our culture, that they will lose their identity if they have kids. But somehow, the nifty jogging stroller that's a near copy of everybody else's jogging stroller will fix that. You can still fit in! Yes, but you have to accept that the people you fit in with now have baby puke on their easy-care cotton shirts. Unless, of course, you choose to associate yourself with people for common interests and values beyond what's portrayed in mass-market media.... There are thousands of teenagers longing to be grown-ups. I get frustrated with how many parents there are longing to be teenagers. (Karen, Lisa, Marion: if you do this, thank you for keeping it secret from me. I will learn soon enough if this is the Way Of The World.)

I think the attempted co-opting of "cool" bothers me the most because it's yet another symbol of a group of people who have not yet allowed themselves to realize that they are the establishment, they have had time to change the world, and this is what they've done with it so far. I just want to take some of these people by the shoulders and shake them and say, "You're 40 years old! It was time to stop questing after shallow brand-name media approval fifteen years ago, if not more! Grow up!"

It has just occurred to me that if I save my journals (as I intend to do), I may read those words again eighteen years from now and smack my forehead. I may say, "No, no! It is never too late to start questing after shallow brand-name media approval! Stupid child! Why did you not get a head start!" I find that amusing, because if I took it seriously, it would probably be depressing.

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