By Charles Layton
Folks, I’m not kidding, it was hotter than a billy goat in a pepper patch today. If you turn on the TV late tonight you just know you’ll hear Letterman or Jimmy Fallon doing one-liners about the heat.
“It was so hot today I saw a funeral procession pull into a Dairy Queen.”
“It was so hot today Siri asked me to dip her in a glass of ice water.”
“It was so hot my cab driver was wearing an oscillating turban.”
Hot and heat are interesting words in our language. We use them to refer to anger or excitement – “in the heat of the moment.” “Hot under the collar.” Hot can also mean sexy, or stolen, or under pressure (“on the hot seat”) or brilliant (“he’s a hot shot”) or current, as in a “hot trend” or a piece of “hot news” or “hot gossip.” A live electrical wire is said to be “hot.” So is something that’s radioactive. So is a person wanted by the police. And when the police are close to catching that person, they are “hot on his trail.”
When we don’t feel well, we say we’re “not feeling so hot.” When we didn’t like a movie, we say it was “not so hot.” When I wrote “hotter than a billy goat in a pepper patch,” I used three different meanings of hot, having to do with temperature, sexuality and spicy taste.
In Spanish, by the way, that little countryfied wisecrack wouldn’t make much sense. Spanish uses one word – caliente – for hot as in temperature and another word – picante – for hot as in spicy. Picante comes from the verb picar, which means “to bite.” So when a Spanish-speaker chomps down on a jalapeño pepper, the sensation he feels is not like being burned, but like being bitten.
An animal in estrus is said to be “in heat.” A race that is a tie or close is “a dead heat.”
And then, of course, there is “hot jazz.” This expression is as old as jazz itself. It often refers to early New Orleans jazz – Dixieland. But what it really means is playing that’s dramatic and emotional. A trumpet player who builds up to a pyrotechnical display of high notes or indulges in fast, dazzling passages is said to be playing “hot.” Louis Armstrong epitomized the hot style, especially in his early years, but the style lived on through the swing and bebop eras.
In the late 1940s a new school of jazz musicians came along who avoided this style because they considered it to be overwrought and passé. They pioneered a softer, more thoughtful, subdued style that they called “cool.” Miles Davis was one of these pioneers. Instead of playing the trumpet with heavy, dramatic vibrato, Davis used almost no vibrato at all. Chet Baker also played in that style. Stan Getz, with his gorgeous tone and highly melodic improvisations, was one of the sax players of “the cool school.” Others were Lester Young and Gerry Mulligan.
From describing this style of music, cool soon came to describe a style of behavior characterized by emotional self-control. This had always been so to a degree; a “cool customer” was someone who remained calm under stress. But now someone who behaved inappropriately — who “blew his cool” — might be told, “Hey, man, be cool!” or “Cool it!” Being cool was definitely a virtue.
By the time I was in high school, in the 50s, the word cool was pervasive and its meaning was becoming broader and more diluted. Elvis Presley was “a cool cat,” although in the older musical nomenclature he might have been considered hot. Likewise, a Ford Thunderbird could be called either “a cool car” or “a hot car.” A linguistic slippage was taking place.
The word cool has proven to be extremely long-lasting, though. My skateboarding grandson and his friends use it all the time, but now, having lost most of its original flavor, it’s just an all-purpose term of approval. He’ll describe a video game or a new pair of sneakers or something funny he saw on YouTube as “cool.”
I’ll bet not one in a thousand of the people who use the word now have any idea that it once referred to a very specific style of music.
Here is some hot jazz by Armstrong:
And here is the cool sound of Stan Getz. The singer is Astrud Gilberto: