Joe Gargery, Original Cool Cat

by John Holbo on September 10, 2009

Now why did my previous post garner scarcely a comment?

The Plain People of the Internet: It hadn’t any McArdle in it!

I: Surely, my good man, we have not come to such a pretty pass as that.

The Plain People of the Internet: But here we are, and here you are.

I: I prefer to think it was due to modesty. False modesty, perhaps. But if it weren’t for false modesty, some people would have no modesty at all. Or so I like to flatter myself.

The Plain People of the Internet: What are you babbling about, you great baby, and bottomless bag of blog posts!

I: In my post, I quoted John Kricfalusi on the baneful influence of cool. “Why do young artists say they like UPA? Because it makes ‘em cool. Hipster Emo time. (It’s also easy to fake) It’s like when teenagers discover communism. They think it’s real cool to go against common sense and experience. But then when they meet the real world head on later, they realize it was youthful folly. You’re supposed to grow out of it. I too fell under the UPA spell for the 3 weeks I wanted to be cool.” But what is it, of which he speaks? A contrarian herd instinct, thus a bleating contradition in terms? An emo knee-jerk? What is the common denominator of Gerald McBoingBoing and the dream of One World Government? In short, what’s cool? Or if you prefer, what does ‘cool’ mean? Compared to this question, the trouble with McArdle’s opposition to health care is but a bagatelle.

The Plain People of the Internet: Blast your eyes!

I: I have been doing some research on the subject. Here is a passage from Charles Dickens, Great Expectations. Joe Gargery – honest soul, who wears his heart on his rolled up sleeve, as he works an honest day at the open flame of the forge – reports on what has become of Miss Havisham’s fortune:

“Dear Joe, have you heard what becomes of her property?”

“Well, old chap,” said Joe, “it do appear that she had settled the most of it, which I meantersay tied it up, on Miss Estella. But she had wrote out a little coddleshell in her own hand a day or two afore the accident, leaving a cool four thousand to Mr. Matthew Pocket. And why, do you suppose, above all things, Pip, she left that cool four thousand unto him? ‘Because of Pip’s account of him the said Matthew.’ I am told by Biddy, that air the writing,” said Joe, repeating the legal turn as if it did him infinite good, ‘account of him the said Matthew.’ And a cool four thousand, Pip!”

I never discovered from whom Joe derived the conventional temperature of the four thousand pounds, but it appeared to make the sum of money more to him, and he had a manifest relish in insisting on its being cool.

I submit that if even a simple soul like Joe, what never learned his letters, can have such a fine appreciation of cool, then it cannot be beyond the capacity of the internet itself.

The Plain People of the Internet: Why if I could just reach through this comment box, as if it were a window, I’d post a comment, I’ll say!

I: [With an air of venturing a novel and highly advanced experimental technique] Googling around a bit, I have discovered –

The Plain People of the Internett: – Zzzzzzzz.

I: – I have discovered that, apparently, Joe’s usage, although Pip regards it as slangy and fresh to the point of mild obscurity, is attested much earlier: “Applied since 1728 to large sums of money to give emphasis to amount.” By contrast, the use of ‘cool’ to predicate a particular sort of somethingness to people and other things only dates to the jazz age: 1933, to be exact. This is interesting because it makes me realize that I am no longer sure how to hear, for example, the title of Nathanael West’s classic, A Cool Million (1934). I have always thought that title is very much of its time, and should be played on the keys of the mind in a jazzy way. But now that I know it could have come from Joe Gargery, with his coddleshells and meantersays, I don’t know what to think. (Commenter Lemuel Pitkin, you must have an opinion on this question.) The puzzle is this: how can we be sure that the sense that arose in 1933, or thereabouts, is distinct from the sense that had been around since 1728. This is no idle puzzle, I hasten to emphasize, but is key to our present difficulty: namely, the lack of comments to my previous post, due to the absence of McArdle and (I can only assume) the emphasis on cool. What can one say in response to Kricfalusi if one is not even sure (for how can one be?) that the coolness of One World Government is the same coolness as 4000 pounds, or is it more like the coolness of jazz? Or all they all one. Is there a unity of the coolnesses, akin to the unity of the virtues? And what does this have to do with Gerald McBoingBoing? Because, after all, Pip’s point is that the paradox of cool is that it makes valuable without adding value. 4000 pounds will buy, on the open market, exactly as much as will a cool four thousand. Likewise, Kricfalusi’s point is that animators deluded in the school of UPA and the flat style will be forever making things valuable, in some sense, without adding value, in any sense. As Foghorn Leghorn says: “two nothings is nothing.” Thus, there must be a unity of the coolnesses, and the 1728 sense, the Joe Gargery sense, must just be the same as the Jazz Age sense. Then again, we seem to have a sense that this is not so. As King Lear says: “Nothing? Nothing comes from nothing.” We have a sense that, surely, the Jazz Age sense of cool must have derived from the Joe Gargery sense, by extension. It must have been caused by the difference between 4000 pounds and a cool 4000 pounds. It must have occurred to people that this was also true of some people and things. That there was a discernability, along the jazz axis, of identicals along any other axis. It is enough to make one’s head hurt. And how much more would it have hurt, I console you, if I’d made the same point, but in Heideggerian terms?

The Plain People of the Internet: For that small mercy, I’ll let you live – this time!



HNT 09.10.09 at 2:40 am

John Holbo asks, “Now why did my previous post garner scarcely a comment?

Little did he know that two days earlier, John Holbo answered, “But I don’t feel like talking about philosophy tonight.


Salient 09.10.09 at 2:45 am

Or all they all one. Is there a unity of the coolnesses, akin to the unity of the virtues?

One of the salient features of the world is that there is so much cool. All of us know it. Each of us contributes his share.


John Holbo 09.10.09 at 2:46 am

But surely there is more to life than philosophy, HNT!


Bloix 09.10.09 at 2:50 am

From Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address, February 27, 1860:

But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! 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!”


Bloix 09.10.09 at 2:58 am

Note also the expression “a cool customer,” meaning an audacious person. By the grace of Google, here’s an example from 1876:


John Holbo 09.10.09 at 3:05 am

Thanks for those, Bloix. (This is fascinating stuff, I think.) So we have the sense of ‘cool’ in the Gargery sense – meaning something like: satisfactorily sufficient. What makes 4000 pounds cool, I take it, is that it makes you autonomous. You can ‘keep your cool’ (as would say) and not get too bothered about stuff because you can keep your 4000 pounds (and live off it). And we have ‘cool’ in the sense of audacious. This is Lincoln’s sense, as well as the NY Times sense. Coolness, in the modern sense, sort of combines them. Self-sufficiency, plus audacity – the ability to reach and and effect while remaining untouched. Audacity with impunity.


Bloix 09.10.09 at 3:31 am

Well, I’ve now checked in with my very good friend and companion, the OED. Old Oed has a citation for the money usage back to 1728, and speculates that the original meaning was something like the full amount, accurately reckoned, from cool meaning deliberate or unemotional – so a cool 4000 was 4000 and no mistake.

The meaning audacious is dated to 1825 (a “right cool fish”) – and you can see the extension of meaning from unemotional and lacking in warmth to audacious, impudent, unabashed.

Just speculating now, but the Jazz Age usage could have been a subversion of the negative meaning – in the same way that “bad,” “wicked,” “sick” etc. have become terms of praise.


Bloix 09.10.09 at 3:40 am

Foghorn Leghorn: “two nothings is nothing.”
Luke: “Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand.”


John Holbo 09.10.09 at 3:47 am

Luke: “Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand.”

Doh! How did I forget the perfect example? And it’s a great example because it’s a comparatively recent use that’s clearly actually more in the Abe Lincoln sense of ‘audacious’.


John Holbo 09.10.09 at 3:48 am

“Dragline: Nothin’. A handful of nothin’. You stupid mullet head. He beat you with nothin’. Just like today when he kept comin’ back at me – with nothin’.
Luke: Yeah, well, sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”

Truly this is something to let the Heideggerians go to work on.


John Quiggin 09.10.09 at 3:52 am

I always thought the current usage was derived from cool jazz, which was a reaction against hot jazz (the connotations of which are clear enough). But I’m not going to be so uncool as to Google and find out.


John Holbo 09.10.09 at 3:58 am

“Cool jazz is a style of jazz music that arose during the Second World War. During this time, there was an influx of Californian (predominantly white) jazz musicians to New York. Once there, these musicians mixed with the mostly black bebop musicians, and were also influenced by the “smooth” sound of black saxophonist Lester Young. The style that emerged became known as “cool jazz”, which avoided the aggressive tempos of bebop. Cool jazz included intricate arrangements, innovative forms, and songs having a thoroughly composed sound. (Although they included improvised sections.) The term “cool” started being applied to this music about 1953 with the release of the album Classics in Jazz: Cool and Quiet by Capitol Records”.

Apparently there was a Jazz Age sense of ‘cool’ – meaning fashionable – dating from the early thirties, before there was ‘cool jazz’, per se, as a sub-genre. Curious. (I could play it cool and pretend I knew this all along.)


John Holbo 09.10.09 at 4:03 am

Wikpedia has an article and visual timeline:


ben 09.10.09 at 4:09 am

“A cool customer” means the customer is audacious? I thought it meant he had, you know, sangfroid—a sense of “cool” (“not affected by passion or emotion, dispassionate; controlled, deliberate, not hasty; calm, composed”) attested in Beowulf, according to the OED.

The OED also applies “cool” to sums of money seven years earlier than does John, mustering from 1721 the sentence “I owe Crop the Lender a Brace, and if I have a single Simon to pay him, rot me: But the queer Coll promises to advance me t’other three, and bring me home, provided you will let him sneak into your List for a cool Thousand.”

Ah, and later, regarding customers: “cool customer n. a person who is calm and composed, esp. where alarm, dismay, or diffidence would be expected (cf. senses A. 2a , A. 2d)”, first example from Scott, in 1823: “Yonder Tyrrel looks like a tevilish cool customer{em}..I can promise you he is mettle to the back bone.”


mor 09.10.09 at 4:15 am

No better man than Joe Gargery to know ‘cool’ or straw or cherry red or pheasant’s eye. When you are ‘cool’ you are no longer malleable, you do not become wrought by ere a thing. Put to the grindstone of life unless you remain cool you will lose your temper and no longer be able to cope (couper) or retain your edge.


giotto 09.10.09 at 4:53 am

Sayz the Plain People of the Internetz:

The cool of the jazz age is not the cool of Dickens. The cool of the jazz age comes from the African-American tradition and ultimately from West Africa where various words for “cool” refer to composure, self-control, mastery of self: a moral as well as an aesthetic ideal. The reference above (#12) to the wiki on cool jazz has the right language: lack of aggression, composed. This cool is all about serenity and calm. The standard introduction to the history of the African/African-American concept is Robert Farris Thompson, “An Aesthetic of the Cool” first published in African Arts v. 7 no. 1 (Autumn 1973), pp. 41-91, and reprinted in Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aeshetics, edited by Bill Beckley and David Shapiro, 1998.


Leinad 09.10.09 at 5:50 am

1678, from Fr. nonchalant, prp. of nonchaloir “be indifferent to, have no concern for” (13c.), from non- “not” + chaloir “have concern for,” ult. from L. calere “be hot” (see calorie). Fr. chaland “customer, client” is of the same origin.


John Holbo 09.10.09 at 5:58 am

And sang-froid. While we are on about the French. On the line between cold-blooded and merely poised. Hence the natural transference to mean elegant, fashionable. I take it that giotto’s point, above, about the West African origins of the ‘coolness’ of jazz is sound. Still, it does seem plausible that very nearly the same concept arose independently from European roots. (Not the sort of thing one can ever prove, of course, identity conditions being endlessly debateable.


Bloix 09.10.09 at 6:37 am

BTW, have you read David Lodge’s book The Art of Fiction? He talks about Dickens’ unavoidable contrast in tone between his uneducated characters (IIRC Lodge is talking about Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times but Gargery is the same) and his educated, upper class narrative voice. The effect is to condescend to the character. In the passage you quote, the condescension is not only implicit in the diction, but also explicit in the adult Pip’s pretence that he does not understand Gargery’s “low” usage of “cool” in reference to money.


Henry (not the famous one) 09.10.09 at 7:16 am

Is this killing you?

[no answer necessary]


alex 09.10.09 at 7:40 am

“Cool” is all very well, until it becomes the affected indifference to all forms of real human contact, concern, empathy and society. Which, alas, it often seems to.


Henri Vieuxtemps 09.10.09 at 9:17 am

@21, no, I don’t think it works like that; not usually. Blondie is cool, but Angel Eyes isn’t – too cold.


belle le triste 09.10.09 at 10:15 am

The cool vs hot via jazz is latterday back-formation, I think: this is somewhat from memory, but cool and hot are BOTH already terms of approbation in various African cultures — there’s a nice passage in John Miller Chernoff’s sociological study of studying under a Ghanaian drum master… he’s in a bar, a band is playing, he’s noting that there’s an appreciation of the most elegant, minimalist dancers — someone else at the bar spots he’s just tapping his toe, visible bcz he has on sandals, to the band and delightedly crowns him the coolest dancer in the place… because he’s responding so controlledly to the (presumably hot) band

kricfalusi’s position is largely about inter-hipster cultural positioning and niche micro-differentiation, i think…

otoh: happy happy joy joy! log log log!

you should all rush out and read the chernoff anyway


Nick 09.10.09 at 12:56 pm

Now why did my previous post garner scarcely a comment?

Because it said “Plato,” right there in the title.


Barry 09.10.09 at 1:03 pm

by John Holbo on September 10, 2009

“Now why did my previous post garner scarcely a comment?”

Ok, Ok, here’s a pity comment :)


ben 09.10.09 at 5:51 pm

from West Africa where various words for “cool” refer to composure, self-control, mastery of self: a moral as well as an aesthetic idea

That West African influence in Beowulf will come as a surprise to scholars of Old English, I’m sure.


Flann O'Brien 09.10.09 at 7:01 pm

The Plain People of everywhere this side of At-Swim-Two Birds are mine. Go elsewhere young man.


Praisegod Barebones 09.11.09 at 10:03 am

Or all they all one. Is there a unity of the coolnesses, akin to the unity of the virtues?

I’m fairly sure that coolness is radically disunified. 2o years ago a schoolfriend observed to me that the kind of coolness exemplified by Judge Dredd in 2000AD was incompatible with the kind of coolness exemplified by his Latin teacher. (Having met the Latin teacher, I agreed.) The firneds suggestion was that ‘cool’ should be treated as a vector quantity, with both magnitude and direction, rather than as a scalar.


giotto 09.11.09 at 12:01 pm

Ben, no no is claiming that composure was unknown in European culture. Thompson even addresses this, which you would know had you looked at the source before shooting off.


roac 09.11.09 at 1:59 pm

A website of unknown reliability says that Cool Papa Bell had acquired his nickname as early as 1922.


John Emerson 09.11.09 at 9:27 pm

“Cool” also describes a criminal who could be trusted not to bring unnecessary attention to himself and not to give the police an excuse to intervene, and who could be trusted to behave appropriately in a difficult situation. Jazz always had some sort of connection to the underworld. Some say this is the primary meaning (though derivable from the generic non-criminal “behaves calmly under pressure”).


John Emerson 09.11.09 at 9:33 pm

“Now why did my previous post garner scarcely a comment?”

You do realize, I hope, that because of this question, all comments on this thread must be regarded as pity comments.


rich 09.12.09 at 12:57 am

“Hot can be cool, and cool can be hot, and each can be both. But hot or cool, man, jazz is jazz.”
— Louis Armstrong

Not convinced you’re gonna get to the root of cool by obscurantizing it as much as possible. Just sayin’, it ain’t the most direct route to figuring out what’s cool and what’s not. Usage and root meanings aren’t that far below the surface, one, but the method of analysis-as-entomologist — that is, treating a word as a bug and then dipping it formaldehyde and then pinning it, dead, to a board and sliding it into a drawer rather than seeing what has done — recently, in context, in the fabric of life, as a living word — just isn’t gonna help you any. Halfway there, sure, but not exactly on the shortest or surest track to what is, I guess, the goal here.


nick 09.12.09 at 7:04 pm

Alan Liu has a rather large and very interesting book about “cool” and post-war American culture, with a particular focus on the Internet, entitled _The Laws of Cool_: just about everything mentioned on this thread and lots more gets attention….


Josh Glenn 09.12.09 at 8:24 pm

Alex said: “‘Cool’ is all very well, until it becomes the affected indifference to all forms of real human contact, concern, empathy and society. Which, alas, it often seems to.” This is how Pip himself uses the word “cool” everywhere else in the book — as opposed to “cold,” which he uses for actual/sociopathic indifference, as opposed to affected.

For example: “‘You can say what you like,’ returned the sergeant, standing coolly looking at him [Magwitch, the convict] with his arms folded, ‘but you have no call to say it here.'”

When Jaggers is humiliating/tormenting Molly (Estella’s mother): “‘There’s power here,’ said Mr. Jaggers, coolly tracing out the sinews with his forefinger.”

And: “I was beginning to express my gratitude to my benefactor for the great liberality with which I was treated, when Mr. Jaggers stopped me. ‘I am not paid, Pip,’ said he, coolly, ‘to carry your words to any one’…”

Pip never calls Estella’s behvaior “cool,” though. “Cold,” but not cool. “Estella was always about, and always let me in and out, but never told me I might kiss her again. Sometimes, she would coldly tolerate me; sometimes, she would condescend to me; sometimes, she would be quite familiar with me; sometimes, she would tell me energetically that she hated me.” The over-rational Jaggers is cool; the irrational Estella cold.

And then there’s money. When Jaggers first gives him some of his inheritance, Pip recounts: Jaggers “produced a long purse, with the greatest coolness, and counted them [twenty guineas] out on the table and pushed them over to me.” And when Pip tries (unsuccessfully) to become more like Jaggers, he recounts: “I established with myself, on these occasions, the reputation of a first-rate man of business,—prompt, decisive, energetic, clear, cool-headed.” Of course, he is anything but cool-headed; like Joe, whose place in Pip’s emotional life Jaggers is unable to usurp, Pip is warm.

So when Joe calls a sum of money a “cool four thousand,” Pip is only affecting not to understand how a sum can be cool. Joe is mistakenly equating coolness with sophistication and worldly wisdom — just as he (Pip) formerly had a manifest relish in insisting that his business-head was a cool one.

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