Thursday, January 2, 2014

Never Say Cold

Never Say Cold

This week’s post is in honor of my loving wife, Ellen, who introduced my temperature-insensitive self some 20+ years ago to her unique take on words used to label cooler temperatures.

Nippy she sees as a non-threatening coolishness, one that inspires rosy cheeks & connotes fun & frivolity, yet still requires a sweater. Nippy entered the English language in 1898, & has a vague association with the idiom, “a biting chill in the air.”  Nippy comes from the word nip, which came to the language in the 1300s from Germanic sources, meaning to pinch sharply or bite suddenly.

Just down the thermometer on Ellen’s scale of coolness is chilly, a level of coolness that calls for serious layering. Chilly showed up in the 1560s from the noun chill, which came from a Proto-Indo European word meaning cold, through the Old English word ciele or cele. Interestingly, for two centuries, from the 1400s through the 1600s the word chill eclipsed the word cold in English usage. Since the 1600s, cold is most English speakers’ go-to word when the temperature drops.

Next on Ellen’s scale of coolness is brisk, which connotes consistent discomfort & very little hope in sight for warming. Ellen tries to reserve brisk for truly uncomfortable situations. Brisk came to English through Scottish (bruisk) in the 1550s. The Scots got it from the French word brusque which meant lively, fierce, sharp & tart.

In Ellen’s scale of coolness, the word cold is to be avoided at all costs, as it suggests all hope is lost. For academic purposes, I have included this ever-so-sad & hope-sucking word. Read on if you are strong. Cold comes from Germanic sources (cald, ceald, kalt, kaldr, kalds, & more) and appeared in English in the 900s. These words came from the Proto-Indo-European word gel- or gol-, which through other branches of the etymological tree gave birth to gelatin, glass & glacier.

Some cold idioms include:

Catch cold 1200s
Cold-blooded 1590s
Cold-hearted 1600
Cold shoulder 1816
Cold feet 1893
Cold turkey 1910
Cold war 1945

Also of interest, the word cool once had the form coolth. For reasons unknown, though warm held onto the alternate form warmth, cool lost its alternate form coolth.

What have you to say about Ellen’s scale of coolness? Or about any of the words above?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik


  1. I'm so glad to know "coolth" is a real word. I use it to mean hipness and suavitude. (as in "the Dude has coolth") But what would the Proto-Europeans do with the word "chillax", I wonder? Another fun bit of wordmongering!

  2. Greetings Anne,
    To me, "coolth" sounds more like a kid who's lost his teeth trying to say something is the coolest. Thanks for coming by.

  3. Interesting! I agree entirely with Mrs. Ellen's scale, but with one difference: I'd put "brisk" as slightly warmer than "nippy". Brisk requires long sleeves, but it's nice out and perfect weather for outdoor fires. Nippy requires long sleeves and a sweater. You can still build a fire, but it's a bit cool to stay out long.

    Coolth. I have no idea what I'm going to do with this information, but it delights my soul!

  4. It's so interesting that "nippy" is associated with biting cold. It makes sense, but it never would have occurred to me. That's why I love your blog, Charlie.

    To me, "nippy" means it's just starting to get cold. Time to go indoors or go get a sweater. Brisk, on the other hand, requires one to hunch her shoulders because it involves a penetrating breeze. I don't know why I associate brisk with wind.

    My favorite part of this post is learning about the lost word "coolth." That's so cool! I can't imagine English without the word "warmth." How could we have let "coolth" go by the wayside?

    OK. Just answered my own question. I read the "coolth" paragraph to my husband and discovered the word is very hard to say. No wonder people gave it up for the infinitely easier "cool" and all its various substitutes.

  5. Ahoy Vickie & Rachel6,
    One must wonder what variables contribute to the various understandings of these words. As a person who doesn't seem very affected by temperature, they were all pretty much synonyms until I met Ellen. So it appears at least one variable is one's inner thermostat. Then, there is geography, family geography, income level, &....?

  6. Cool is one of my favorite words. Temperature related and otherwise. Cool is a favorite state of coldness and a favorite state of satisfaction. I love that my grandsons use cool the way I always have. Do you know how cool came to mean nifty, spiffy, neat, stylin', sweet, bitchin', awesome....?

  7. Always knew if I thought of something, someone else had before. I searched "nippy chilly brisk temperature scale" and found this wonderful article. Same order except Chilly before Nippy. What I was hoping to also find was Celsius attached. I was thinking <15C Chilly < 10C Nippy < 8C Brisk < 5C Sharpe <0C Cold. I will keep hunting.
    Thanks for the post, and to your wife for her great idea.