Do You Say ‘Cool’ or ‘Chill’? (Or, How Language Moves)

I remember the first time that I learned that language is not static or fixed, but “moves.”

That’s to say that many of the words and phrases that we use to describe ideas or tell stories have this natural, organic way of evolving and changing over time.

When I was a kid, I thought that the evolving nature of language was something superficial; a pointless, silly exercise that some people apparently felt was necessary but only seemed to complicate the ways in which we “all” had already agreed to describe things.

As I became a young adult, I even thought that the changing ways that “we all” referred to groups of people based on matters of  racial identity or sexual orientation, too, was an exercise in “political correctness,” or the mythology that certain terms and phrases and labels become forbidden from speech for arbitrary reasons.

Today, I know differently.

Today, I understand that language moves as society moves.

Today, I believe that the stories we tell, which are contained within even single words or short phrases, must evolve over time if we are truly committed to making a better tomorrow for us all.

If we want to live a new story, we must tell our stories anew.

Language moves because we move.

How Language Moves

I was in the sixth grade and my classmate Melanie — who was blonde and cute and very athletic and great at every sport at which she played — was telling a small group of us about a new word that she had learned from her older brother. Since Melanie was one of only a few girls in my homeroom class — and since, when I was 12, I had a romantic crush of some sort on every living human female of a relevant age — I too had a crush on Melanie and took extra care to pay close attention to everything that she said.

We were hovering near our new and still-alien-seeming lockers, which no one locked because everyone still carried all of their books in their L.L. Bean backpacks (embroidered with their initials, of course) when Melanie told us about this new word.

“You say, chill, instead of cool,” Melanie explained, elaborating on the slightly-different-but-still-basically-the-exact-same-phraseology, “Like, you say Oh, that’s chill, instead of saying that’s cool. You say chill instead, but it means cool. It’s just a cooler way to say… cool.”

Melanie was nothing short of thrilled to be the messenger of this new phrase that, according to her, we’d all be using very soon.

Her older brother was named Josh. He was also blonde and had spiky hair and wore baggy jeans and skateboarded like one of those kids who was told not to by cops. He was also very athletic and he was particularly good at basketball and lacrosse. He must have only been 14 years old at the time but he was already more than 6 feet tall and seemed to me to be at least 19 or 21 or 24 years old at the time — that is, until I finally got to be 19 and 21 and 24 years old myself and realized that when you’re 14 years old you’re really, really only ever just 14 years old.

Nevertheless, because 14-year-old Josh thought that a word like chill was going to become a big deal, back then, we all listened.

Only that I distinctly remember thinking to myself at the time: 

“That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”

I would never dare say it to my crush Melanie — let alone her cool and very tall older brother — that she was wrong about anything.

But in my head, I was silently saying to myself:

We already have a word for cool. And that word is ‘cool.’ Why would we need another?”

I didn’t understand many things that I was 12 years old — not the least of which included matters coolness and culture and fads. Josh represented one of those older-sibling ambassadors who fed invaluable data to the younger of his generation; he seemed to be a member of an impossibly far-away world of knowledge and experience in which older kids knew stuff like what words were supposed to be cool now and did stuff like have parties or smoke pot or actually kiss or skateboard in CVS parking lots despite being told not to by cops.

Back then, anyone who was older than me by even a single school grade seemed to have lived forever longer. I automatically assigned them sage-like wisdom on the basis of this one year’s worth of having lived longer. I figured that anyone older than me must have had everything in life figured out.

Back then, my greatest secret was hiding how little I felt I knew — and, how uncomfortable I was with all of my not-knowing. 

No wonder why being introduced to a simple synonym for cool like chill felt so vexing for me.

Twenty years ago, long before I considered myself a writer or a lover of language and story, I didn’t understand that the words we choose are one of the most fundamental outlets of creative self-expression that humanity possesses. The fact that language moves is incredibly human: it speaks to humanity’s insatiable curiosity; the desire to keep trying something new; the dedication to doing something “done before” but differently; the hunger to explore ways into alternative perspectives and experiences, rather than to just do what has been done before.

When I was 12 years old, I didn’t have a grasp of this creative nature of language, or how the meanings and feelings of different words could move over time — if only just for the fun and the creativity of it.

But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that language moves not only for creativity’s sake but because the words and phrases that we use represent entire stories.

Simple as they may seem, words and phrases contain within them entire emotional, psychological, and spiritual landscapes; they impart whole experiences, evoke histories, and dictate possibilities. Words are like prayers; they broadcast a strong, wide, energetic message around what we think is true or false; real or unreal. Even unconsciously — when we don’t understand the power, the potential for hurt, or the repressive history of a word or phrase — the stories into which we speak energy and thus life can really affect fellow humans who are striving to live lives that are more full, more whole, and more true.

In the 6th grade, I didn’t understand how the language we use — single words, turns of phrase, even how we construct whole sentences — contain far more than their dictionary definitions.

In the 6th grade, choosing to use a word like “chill” wasn’t so much a social statement as it was just trying to keep up with cooler older siblings and what words they decided were markers of being nouveau, hip, unconventional, and at the edge of culture.

Today, I understand that the stories we all choose to believe, tell and share quite literally shape, affect, influence, and in some cases define the experience of life for fellow humans. A label for someone else’s racial or gender identity, or for their immigration status, or for their sexual orientation, is not as neat, tidy, polite, or convenient a descriptor as we might feel it is. Because every word, every label, every title, every phrase, contains within it far more than its original meaning or intention.

Words carry entire histories and philosophies and norms; the stories that they continue to write, when spoken, create whole landscapes of possibility and whole landscapes of impossibility.

The stories we all tell — whether or not we fully understand the power of those stories — can dictate what reality becomes for people. Just on the basis of having told them.

And yet, there’s no one governing body deciding what means what, when, or why, as the mythology of “political correctness” implies.

In the truest sense of what democracy means, we the people “vote” on this ever-evolving and constantly-shifting nature of language on the basis of our choosing to use it — and, just as well, on the bravery of those who choose to stand up and express why and how old, antiquated stories are no longer relevant; or that they hurt; or that they have been wielded as tools of power and repression in the past, and deserve to be ended now.

Language “moves” because as time goes on — and as culture and norms evolve — our shared language must evolve with it.

Our language is slow to catch up to the times; to the rising bar of expectations that we have as a society that means to be loving, inclusive, and expansive. Words and phrases simply get aged out of relevance. They get aged out of accuracy, fairness, and truth.

The stories we tell begin to date themselves when we, humanity, learn and grow and heal and expand into greater wholeness, truth, and love — and out of our shadows, darkness, and fear.

It is tempting, and easy, to sit back and think, “We already have a word for cool. It’s cool. Why do we need another?”

And yet, language moves because antiquated norms, and dated concepts, and deliberately repressive ideas — all of which are contained within small, seemingly innocent words and phrases — tell entire stories. And with regard to the stories that have held any group of people back for generations and generations, we can also say that we all have been held back just as long as fellow human beings have remained less-than-fully-expressed.

It is natural and normal for words and phrases and labels in our shared language to begin to feel dated, old-fashioned, no longer relevant of the times, or so antiquated that their use now feels repressive, disenfranchising, or hurtful to people.

Language moves because we as people are always moving. Striving for what could be. For what’s better, healthier, and fairer for us all.

Our collective ideas of right and wrong; our understanding of what identity is and isn’t; our beliefs around what is “normal” and what should be… these are always moving, too.

As individuals within a collective, we share language to connect to one another. Language exists for us to relate to and relate through one another’s experiences, identities, struggles, hopes, dreams, and fears.

That’s why language exists at all: to help us become closer to one another.

And despite the impulse that some people may have — as I once had when I was younger — to blame an elusive, mysterious governing body of “politically correct” finger-waggers (who don’t, in fact, exist) about what they feel can or cannot be said at a given time, the reason that the words we use keep changing is because what those words represent and the ideas they embody and the stories they imbue no longer stand up to the test of time.

Language moves because society moves, and because culture moves, and because people move.

And because language exists to help us survive together.

That’s why the language we use is constantly moving — because we can, and mean to, do better.

For everyone to feel more whole.

To be less oppressed.

To become more free.

To ignite more of inherent wisdom contained within us all, so that we may evoke the full force of contribution and creativity and knowledge of humanity to benefit civilization and the world at large.

Our language moves so that we may comfort. And empathize. And not just to say, “I see you,” but to do the seeing and to hold space for the witnessing with compassion and care and determination.

The words we use represent the stories we believe, and the stories we believe are constantly shifting and changing as our understanding of the stories that we have been telling shifts and changes and expands more consciously.

When it comes to matters of identity or gender, race or nation of origin, sexual orientation or age, or feelings of belonging, or what it means to be truly inclusive, or building a sense of community deeper than exists, and other such matters of the heart, is there any wonder about how and why language moves?

We even have more than one word just for calling something… “cool.”

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