coolth

He switched on the air, and a pleasing coolth pervaded the room.

What?

I can write that he switched on the heat and a pleasing warmth pervaded the room, right?

So what’s wrong with coolth? Why would we treat it as uncouth?

Don’t bother saying it’s a non-word made up on analogy with warmth. They both come from the same formation, the one that also gave us truth from true, depth from deep, strength from strong (with a vowel alteration), length from long (ditto), sloth from slow, and a few others. And coolth has been in the language since the 1500s at least. It just happens that it has fallen out of favour in recent times and is now used mainly for humour or cuteness. You can still find it in the dictionary.

What are the alternatives? There is coolness. That, like coolth, adds a suffix. It looks perhaps more normal to us now; new words are still being made with ness. But it’s a longer word, and it lacks the minty fresh final sound of coolth. And would we brook warmness? Our alternative is just cool: “In the cool of the evening,” for instance. That uses an adjective as a substantive – in other words, it’s a conversion of an adjective to a noun. We do it with cold: “Come in from the cold.” But we don’t usually do it with warm or hot: “In the warm of the room”? “I have come to appreciate her hot” (rather than hotness)?

And what would the harm be of keeping forms parallel, and having a distinct and concise and soft cold word for the condition of being cool? Why must it now be just a funny form, a word-that-doesn’t-exist-but-should? I really can’t tell you why it has fallen out of fashion and become uncool.

But what we certainly see is that English does not hew much to logic and elegance and all that. No, it goes by what is cool and couth, what we are habituated to and what we have learned. Here is a rule; here are exceptions. Here is a word you see all the time; here is a word you would expect to see quite often but it just doesn’t show up. You infer that the words that should be there but aren’t are somehow, for some reason, uncool. Lacking in coolth, and therefore received without warmth – except the warmth of mirth. Words that match patterns but aren’t used are taken as signs of poor language understanding (we learn early that small children and illiterates use words like goed). And so, though they are cut from the same cloth, they are considered uncouth.

9 responses to “coolth

  1. I remember “coolth” being a “with-it” word in the years following 1966, when I first came to North America. There are some very unusual -th words worth mentioning, also, such as “tilth” (the quality of being able to be tilled), “filth” (foulness) and “wealth” which derives from”weal” (prosperity). And, I suppose, “death” from “die”, and “dearth” (being in short supply, therefore expensive).

  2. marc leavitt

    Without a doubt, it’s fine to sit outside in the coolth of the evening.

  3. ashtarbalynestry

    I’ll suggest the word nom. By the way, are Maury, Elisa, Marcus et al real people, or were they created just for the purpose of the story?
    −Fernando Lamadrid

    • Anything that’s marked in the Word Tasting Note Index with a * is a fictional vignette: Maury, Elisa, Marcus, Margot, Jess, Edgar and Marilyn, Dirk E. Oldman, and the rest are fictitious. I do occasionally mention a real person in my word tasting notes – my wife, my friend Brian – but those are never mixed with the fiction, and the accounts are always much less detailed in the dialogue.

  4. First time I encountered coolth was in the wonderful kids’ novel Magic By the Lake by Edward Eager. And it generated that same argument:

    “Coolth,” said Katharine. “Blessed, blessed coolth.”
    “That’s no word,” said Jane.
    “It ought to be,” said Katharine

  5. Chill is the nominal form. It doesn’t work as well for a pleasing chill, but you speak with the army you have, not the army you wish you had. We need to reclaim chill from its pejorators.

    • Chill has quite a lot of specific associations and overtones, and when referring purely to temperature generally connotes a colder temperature than cool. It is also its own noun/verb/adjective set, so it would have to do double duty to sub in for coolth. There’s no point in talking about reclaiming chill from its current usage if you’re going to insist on going with the army you have, not the one you wish you had. But language is every-changing and is malleable and inventive, and sometimes you can conjure up real soldiers from clay – or find existing ones you didn’t know about. As people love to point out, Shakespeare did. Actually, many of the words we use now were just plain invented or assembled from available bits rather than evolving from time immemorial. So if people start using coolth and it catches on, well, we have a usable word. If not, we don’t.

      Of course you need to know your audience and intent. In many texts and contexts you can’t easily get away with using a new word unless it conforms to a well-established pattern (usually of mixing classical roots and affixes). But sometimes you can.

  6. The problem with coolth isn’t in the dictionary, it’s in our mouths. The lax vowels of filth and wealth aren’t as concerned about their ‘lth. Coolth simply isn’t ‘lthy. To draw on examples someone else gave, tilth was overtaken by tillage for similar reasons. If you want a proper Germanic suffix for cool, and you want it to be successful with native speakers, you need to look for guidance to someone actively engaged in reshaping the language, maybe a rapper, ideally a rapper whose name is a nominal form of the word cool, maybe using the old -jo suffix that’s particularly common in Old Norse. Maybe someone like Coolio could help. 🙂

  7. Reminds me of the (perhaps-apocryphal) story about the movie magnate Sam Goldwyn, who may have said, after viewing his studio’s latest production, “This movie has plenty of charmth and warmth.”

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