The Real Cool

After some years in editorial work in New York, GORDON COTLER is now writing for television. This is his first appearance in the Atlantc.


SOME time ago, I noticed that my vocal participation at parties had dwindled to the threshold of perceptibility. By the time I got the hang of dianetics my circle was out of my depth with the aqualung; when I took to free diving, my contemporaries were up and away with the earth satellite. Even subjects of which I thought I had a special command were being snatched from me like candy from a baby by more stimulating talkers. Recently I hit on a device for stealing back the floor. I pass along the basic principle here for the aid of the anecdotally handicapped.

My device came to me at a partyone evening after a characteristic defeat in a social situation. I was starting a war reminiscence—I’ve had to lean rather heavily on the war of late — about an eccentric British colonel who had been a liaison officer with my outfit and about whom I had three or four crackajack stories. Byway of setting the stage, I was describing the colonel, and 1 had got no further than the word “posh” when I was interrupted by one of the facile talkers who had been smothering my efforts all evening,

“‘Posh,’” he said. “The word has a deuced interesting origin. Anyone know it?” Without waiting for an answer he continued, “P-O-S-H were the initials scrawled across the ticket reservations of important ship passengers from Britain to India in the dear dead Empire days. They stood for ‘Port. Out, Starboard Home,’ those being the preferred locations for cabins. Fascinating, no?” Fascinating, yes, the company agreed, and off they went on a leisurely tour of the old Empire.

My path lay clear. Since the rules governing party talk seemed to permit a speaker to be interrupted for a discourse on the origin of an interesting word, I’d bone up on enough words when I got home to provide myself a wedge into almost any conversation. .Meanwhile, as my companions of the evening made their way slowly from the intolerable conditions of government service on the Gold Coast to the gay life of the planter’s wife in Ceylon, I passed the time inventing word origins. They came so much quicker and seemed so much more unusual than those library research might turn up that I’ve never taken the trouble to crack a reference book.

Anyone can do as well as I have. Most should do better. Remember, simply, to use the origins you invent sparingly and to relate them wit h confidence. The odds against the presence of contradictory documentation are monumental.

The first origins I invented, with “posh” as inspiration, were initialtype origins. “Hobo,”I decided almost at once, was a set of initials, always followed by a number, that conductors jotted down in their train logs in the early days of the New York Central to indicate the number of non-paying passengers they had flushed out who were en route to visit convict friends up the line at Sing Sing. The letters stood for “Hopped On Below Ossining.”

And “cool,” as a jazz term, developed from the initial letters of “Come Over — Open Late,” either form being scribbled on note paper by the owner of a Harlem night club of the early 1940s who invited certain musicians from rival cellars to early morning jam sessions at his place. The acceptance of these invitations by Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others led to the development of progressive or “cool jazz.

The beginner at inventing word origins will soon learn that initials are a tough row to hoe. An easy starting place is in American slang, which offers the additional advantage of being relatively safe from crosschecking. “Hunky-dory,” for instance. “Hunky-dory” is a term that grew out of the perils of commercial fishing on Cape Cod. After every major storm in the early days of the century at least one of the fast but frail boats of the Portuguese settlers was lost at sea ; but the sturdy, w idebeamed craft of the small Hungarian colony rarely had a mishap. The fisher wives rested easy when their men went out in a “Hunky dory.”

Or take “whoopee,” a term circulated by clipper-ship sailors who visited Bombay. This is merely a corruption of “rupee,”the price of admission, shrilly reiterated by native barkers, to the more abandoned nautch entertainments in the Indian seaport. “To make rupee" or “whoopee" meant simply to get up the cash for the spectacle.

I’ve found that I evoke the most satisfying audience response with word origins that contradict the established beliefs of my listeners. “Lilliput “ and “Lilliputian,”for instance. The first, was the nursery name given the great sixteenth-century English queen who could come no closer, as a toddler, to pronouncing “Elizabeth.” The second, of course, characterized her tiny clothes, toys, and furniture. Jonathan Swift revived the terms successfully in Gulliver’s Travels.

Or take “Shavian.”Most people fall into the trap of assuming tins to be ihe adjectival form of Shaw, since it is most commonly applied to George Bernard. Actually, it stems from Quintus Shavius Maximus, the Roman general who shook the confidence of Hannibal’s armies with his brilliant political broadsides. (A “broadside,” by the way , was originally a roadside advertising message. The representative of Fletcher’s Castoria or Bull Durham always specified in his contract with a farmer that the message was to be painted on one of the broad sides of a barn. Advertisers with smaller budgets had to settle for the narrow ends, thus giving rise to the phrase “slim pickings.”)

In inventing word origins, there comes an occasional dry period when you feel you’ll never think of another. That’s the time to prime the pump with words based on proper names. These are far and away the easiest to come by, if the least inspired. “Dreary” is a typical case. It derives from Major General (brevetted) Matthew Drear, the hard-riding Civil War cavalryman who abhorred spitand-polish and often told his men, “First let’s lick the Rebs. We can wash up when the war’s over.” Ry 1863, any Union soldier in a dismal uniform was said to be “Drear-y.

Or take “sibling.” A nineteenthcentury English mother was said to be “Sible-ing” when she heeded the counsel of the pioneer psychologist Rudolph Si hie to have a second child as companion to her first. Why the word was transferred to the children is one of those minor mysteries that make etymology so absorbing.

Don’t allow yourself to be rattled by the rare skeptic who calls your origins poppycock. Remember that a “poppycock” is simply an outsized fowl gotten up in flowers each spring by the peasants of Flanders in appreciation of barnyard fertility; that “bosh” is no more than an appraisal of the propaganda stories of the Germans in World War I; that, “balderdash” was once a fraudulent hair-growing lot ion; and that “hooey evolved from a backwoods summingup of the promises of the late Senator Long of Louisiana. (And Louisiana, you might care to note, was not named for a French king. The assumption is understandable, but the fact is that the word is ofChitimaca Indian origin: Loo-ji-yana — “Where the river meets the sea.”)