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Jive Talkin’: The Origins of Cool Dudes, Groovy Chicks and Hip Cats

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How long have the fashionable people been referred to as "cool"? Where did the word "dude" come from? Here's a look at the origins of six calmly audacious words.

1. Cool

Cool, as a moderate version of cold, has been around for centuries. But by the early 1700s, it was also being applied to large sums of money to emphasize amounts, as in “That’ll cost you a cool million.” In 1732, the phrase “cool as a cucumber” appeared in a poem describing a man’s unflappable demeanor. A dictionary from 1825 lists “calmly audacious” as a definition of cool. By 1918, a Random House slang dictionary was defining cool as “urbane” or “sophisticated.” But cool really blossomed in the 1940s and 50s, amongst jazz musicians, as a way to describe great playing. It even came to describe a style of jazz, as popularized by Miles Davis - a laid-back sound, hushed but intense. Today, of course, cool is alive and well everywhere. As an indication, a Google search of the word produces over 3 billion results.

2. Dude

Dude first appeared on the scene in the late 19th century, most likely as a variation of “dud” — Victorian slang for an article of clothing. You still occasionally hear it today, as in “Hey, nice duds.” So, the original dudes were dandies, well-off young gents known for their fancy dress and wanton ways. Some years later, dude cropped up in the Western United States as a derogatory term for any city-dwelling visitor to cowboy country. It was just another way to say city slicker, and “dude ranches” were places that gave those slickers a little taste of life in the wild west. By the 1930s, dude was being used interchangeably with guy and fella, as a generic term for man. Thirty years later, it made a comeback amongst California surfers, who revived it with expressions like, “Cowabunga, dude” (and while we’re here, cowabunga was coined by the writers of The Howdy Doody Show, for the character Chief Thunderthud). Dude got additional pushes via the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the ‘80s and The Big Lebowski in the ‘90s. Today it’s a seemingly permanent generic term for a person of either sex ("dudette" never quite caught on).

3. Groovy

First heard amongst jazz musicians in the 1920s, groovy — or groovey — was a word used to describe music that was played with feeling and finesse. It was based on the phrase “in the groove,” which referred to the way a phonograph needle on a record player followed the grooves of a record. To be groovy was to be in perfect sync with the music. Strangely, in 1947, 20th Century Fox used the word in a promo trailer to describe and promote the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. The word made a major comeback in the 1960s, of course, as a kind of generic for anything good, as when Simon & Garfunkel famously sang, “Life I love you, all is groovy.” The Austin Powers films brought the word back again in the ‘90s, in a kitschy way. And kitschy is what groovy will probably remain.

4. Chick

Chick image via Shutterstock

As a term of endearment for kids, chick had been around since the 14th century. But as a specific reference to a young woman, it is thought to have first appeared in print in Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel Elmer Gantry: “... he didn't want to marry this brainless little fluffy chick, who would be of no help in impressing rich parishioners.” Again, it’s a word that was popular amongst jazz musicians in the 1930s and 40s, as in, “Dig that trio with a chick singer.” And by the way, dig — as in look at, or check out — was also a word that came from the fertile ground of the jazz scene.

5. Hip / Hep

Image via Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry

Hip or Hep. Which came first? Apparently, hep, appearing in the early 20th century. It meant in-the-know or fashionable, and was popular amongst jazz musicians. But its origin is mysterious. One theory traces it to army drill instructors, who yelled out marching cadences with “Hep, two, three, four.” The thought was that to be hep was then to be in step. A second theory connects it to the phrase “on the hip,” which meant “to use, or be addicted to opium.” It referred to the reclining posture of addicts in opium dens. Because opium was illegal and the dens were like speakeasies, “on the hip” was slang for “having inside knowledge.” Yet another theory says that it was brought into our language by slaves, as it’s connected to a West African word “hipi,” which means “to open one’s eyes.” Hipster first made the scene in the 1940s, to describe fans of bebop jazz. Hippie came along in the 1960s, as a term for any youth that embraced the counterculture. Hipster and hip have survived, while hep and hippie are heard much less these days, as is the ultra-rare heppie.

6. Cat

Would you rather be a dude or a cat? If it was the 1920s, definitely a cat. A dude was square. A cat was cool. Again, it’s the world of jazz that gave us this word for fellow or guy. It’s likely that it has some connection to the feline pet, for the popular conception of a jazz musician could be said to possess many similar qualities to a cat — quick on his feet, resourceful, but with a languid, slightly aloof quality.

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25 Things You Should Know About Tucson
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The west is still wild in Tucson. Surrounded by breathtaking mountains, Arizona’s second-largest city attracts artists, astronomers, outdoorsy types and at least one rare cat. Read on for more Tucson trivia.

1) Some of the earliest evidence of corn cultivation in North America comes from Pima County, Arizona, where Tucson is located. Archaeologists have recovered kernels estimated to be 4000 years old within 60 miles of the city.

2) Towering above the downtown area is an iconic mountain called Sentinel Peak. Look at it from a distance and you may notice that the base is darker than the summit. The native Tohono O’odham people called this landmark Ts-iuk-shan—which is a corruption of their word for “black base.” Spaniards later turned Ts-iuk-shan into Tucson.

3) On March 20, 1880, a passenger train rolled into Tucson for the first time. Mayor R.N. Leatherwood sent out telegrams to dignitaries to publicize the occasion, writing to Pope Leo XIII that the railroad now linked "this ancient and honorable pueblo" with the rest of the Christian world. Newspapers began calling Tucson “the A. and H. Pueblo,” which gradually shrunk to its current nickname, “the Old Pueblo.”

4) If you’re a stargazer, Tucson is one of the best spots in the U.S. for astronomy. In 1972, Pima County enacted a “dark sky” code to regulate the brightness and number of outdoor bulbs in an effort to help local observatories like one at Kitt Peak. Now Tucson suffers from far less light pollution than most cities do, allowing stars and planets to shine through the darkness.

5) Above Broadway Boulevard, you can walk through the belly of a giant metal snake. A covered bridge for pedestrians and cyclists, this serpentine structure is designed to look like a diamondback rattlesnake, whose gaping jaw and fangs form the entrance.

6) By day, it looks like a big plastic doughnut. But after sundown, the solar-powered Desert O sculpture lights up in an array of vibrant colors. The ring, owned by the city of Tucson, is 6 feet in diameter and uses LED lights to create a brilliant display with a different color combo for every night of the week.

7) In 1970, then-mayor Jim Corbett called Tucson's East Speedway Boulevard the "ugliest street in America." At the time, it was enveloped by garish billboards that obscured the city's beautiful vistas. Then Life magazine ran a two-page photo of the forest of road signs and advertisements. The embarrassing spotlight led to Tucson's sign code, passed in the 1980s, which gradually limited billboards and tacky signage.

8) According to Guinness World Records, Davis-Monthan Airforce Base in Tucson has the largest aircraft repair shop and storage facility on Earth. Covering 2600 acres, it could house 4200 aircraft and 40 aerospace vehicles at one time, while still leaving room for 350,000 production tools.

9) In 2013, a new species of scorpion was discovered in the Santa Catalina Mountains, which are visible from downtown Tucson. Biologist Rob Bryson Jr. discovered the species in the Santa Catalinas' "sky islands"—isolated mountaintop habitats known for their biodiversity.

10) Cyclists should consider dropping by on the last Saturday before Thanksgiving for El Tour de Tucson, Arizona's largest and longest-running cycling event. The series of races attracts more than 9000 bike enthusiasts per year and usually raises about $2 million for local charities.

11) Hugo O’Conor, an Irish colonel in the Spanish army, is regarded by some as the founder of Tucson. Although a Spanish mission had been operating in present-day Tucson since 1692, and Native American communities before that, O’Conor arranged to have a military base for Spain's army set up on the site in 1775, resulting in a population boom for the city. O'Conor's red hair and courage in battle gave him the nickname “The Red Captain.”

12) The United States Handball Association Hall of Fame is located on North Tucson Boulevard.

13) Five years after peace was declared in the Mexican-American War, the U.S. bought the lower third of Arizona, which included Tucson, from Mexico. The $10 million transaction, known as the Gadsden Purchase, was finalized in 1854 and added a 30,000-square-mile territory to the United States. The expansion allowed Gadsden, a railroad promoter, to build a transcontinental railroad through the new territory.

14) One of the largest rock shows in the country, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show attracts around 50,000 people annually. In addition to hosting gemstone scholars and dealers, the annual convention has exhibited the most dazzling rocks in existence—like the Hope diamond, lunar rocks collected by NASA astronauts, and the eye-popping Logan sapphire.

15) The Arizona State University Sun Devils and the University of Arizona Wildcats have a longstanding rivalry that dates back to their first meeting in 1889. Each year, the teams compete for the Territorial Cup, the oldest rivalry trophy in college football. The Wildcats play regular home games in their 56,000-seat stadium in midtown Tucson.

16) Speaking of the University of Arizona, it was founded in 1891—21 years before Arizona achieved statehood.

17) Tucson's world-class culinary scene was recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2015 as a “Capital of Gastronomy.” Only 18 cities around the world have been given this title, and no other American city has cracked the list yet. Jonathan Mabry, a historic preservation officer in Tucson, filed the application for the city. “There are more heritage foods grown within 100 miles of Tucson than any other city in North America,” he told Smithsonian.com.

18) The Fourth Avenue Underpass doubles as a one-of-a-kind photo gallery. Roughly 7000 tiles bearing black and white portraits of 21st-century Tucsonans line the walls.

19) Four national flags have flown over the Old Pueblo. Spain ruled Tucson and the rest of Mexico until 1821. Then Mexico itself took over, but sold Tucson and much more territory to the United States in 1854 (see #13). When the Civil War broke out, the city joined the Confederacy and flew the Confederate flag from February to June 1862. Then Union forces, bearing the American flag, took the city back

20) Tucson is the oldest incorporated city in Arizona (and has been since incorporating in 1877).

21) For a few weeks in 1933, radio listeners in Tucson could enjoy a local show hosted by a very young Ray Bradbury. At age 12, he landed a gig at KGAR reciting comic strips on the air every Saturday night. “My pay was free tickets to see King Kong, Murders in the Wax Museum, and The Mummy,” he later reminisced. “You can’t do any better than that.”

22) El Charro Café is the oldest Mexican restaurant in the U.S. continuously operated by the same family. It may also be the birthplace of the chimichanga. As the legend goes, they were invented by Monica Flin, who established El Charro in 1922. She once flipped a burrito right into the fryer, splattering oil everywhere. Since kids were within earshot, she resisted the urge to curse and yelled “chimichanga,” a slang word that means thingamajig, instead.

23) The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures is truly larger than life. A gallery of scale models, it boasts more than 300 tiny room boxes and houses. Some examples predate the Revolutionary War.

24) Downtown, a street known as Calle Carlos Arruza honors one of the greatest bullfighters in history, Mexican-born Carlos Arruza, whose nickname was El Ciclon (The Cyclone). According to historian David Leighton, Calle Carlos Arruza is one of the very few streets—possibly the only street—in the U.S. named after a bullfighter.

25) Only two non-captive jaguars, the largest cats in the New World, are known to reside within the U.S. One of them, nicknamed El Jefe, is a Tucson celebrity. Discovered in 2011, he can be found stalking the Santa Rita Mountains 25 miles south of the city. Jaguars are a near-threatened species: biologists estimate that about 15,000 are left in the wild.

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The Night the Brat Pack Was Born
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If Emilio Estevez had opted to pay for his movie ticket, the Brat Pack might never have been born. It was spring 1985, and Estevez—then the 23-year-old co-star of St. Elmo’s Fire—was being profiled in New York Magazine. The angle was that Estevez had just signed a deal to write, direct, and star in his own feature, That Was Then... This is Now, an opportunity that was rarely afforded to young Hollywood talent. Estevez was two years younger than Orson Welles was when he performed similar duties for 1941’s Citizen Kane.

That youthful exuberance was on display as New York writer David Blum followed Estevez in and around Los Angeles for several days gathering material for the story. With Blum in tow, Estevez decided that he wanted to catch a screening of Ladyhawke, a fantasy film starring Matthew Broderick. For reasons not made entirely clear, he preferred not to have to pay for a ticket. According to Blum, Estevez called the theater and politely asked for free admission before entering an 8 p.m. screening.

It's likely Estevez was just having a little fun with his celebrity. But to Blum, it was indicative of a mischievous, slightly grating sense of entitlement. Blum’s assessment was that Estevez was acting “bratty,” an impression he felt was reinforced when he witnessed a gathering of other young actors at LA’s Hard Rock Cafe for the same story.

What was supposed to be a modest profile of Estevez turned into a cover story declaration: Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” was here, and they had decided to forego the earnest acting study preferred by their predecessors to spend their nights partying instead.

The day the story hit newsstands, Blum received a call from Estevez. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said.

The June 1985 cover of New York magazine
New York, Google Books

Blum’s label had its roots in the Rat Pack of the 1960s, so named for the carousing boys' club led by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Whether it was accurate or not, the performers developed reputations for squeezing every last drink, perk, and joke they could out of their celebrity well into middle age.

That dynamic was on Blum’s mind when New York dispatched him to cover Estevez. After he arrived in California, Blum took note of the fact that a tight cluster of actors seemed to have formed a group, both on- and off-screen. Estevez was close friends with Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, and all of them appeared in 1983’s The Outsiders; Lowe and Estevez were co-starring in St. Elmo’s Fire, a coming-of-age drama that also featured Andrew McCarthy and Judd Nelson; Estevez and Nelson gained a lot of attention for 1984’s The Breakfast Club.

To Blum, Estevez was more than just a multi-hyphenate; he appeared to be the nucleus of a group that spent a lot of time working and playing together. And in fairness to Blum, Estevez didn’t dissuade the writer from that take: Fearing he was coming off as too serious in the profile, Estevez asked Lowe and Nelson to hang out with him at Los Angeles’s Hard Rock Cafe so Blum could see the actor's lighter side.

Nelson would later recall that he felt uneasy around Blum. “Why is this guy having dinner with us?” he asked Estevez. Lowe, meanwhile, was busy flirting with women approaching their table. The group later went to a "punk rock" club, with a Playboy Playmate tagging along.

As celebrity hedonism goes, it was a tame evening. But Blum walked away with the idea that Estevez was the unofficial president of an exclusive club—attractive actors who were soaking up success while idling late into the night.

Blum returned to New York with a different angle for his editors. He wanted to capture this “Brat Pack,” a “roving band” of performers “on the prowl” for good times. Although the magazine had just run a cover story about a teenage gang dubbed “the wolf pack” and feared repetition, they agreed.

As far as Estevez and the others were concerned, Blum was busy executing a piece on Estevez’s ambitions as a writer and director. When Estevez, Nelson, and Lowe appeared on the cover—taken from a publicity still for St. Elmo’s Fire—with his newly-coined phrase, they were horrified.

Blum began getting calls from angry publicists from each of the actors mentioned in the article—and there had been a lot of them. In addition to Estevez, the de facto leader, and lieutenants Lowe and Nelson, Blum had dubbed go-to John Hughes geek Anthony Michael Hall the “mascot”; Timothy Hutton was said to be on the verge of excommunication for his film “bombs”; Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, and Matt Dillon were also mentioned.

To the actors, the effect was devastating. Independent of how they spent their free time, all of them were pursuing serious careers as performers, with producers, directors, and casting agents mindful of their portrayal in the media. Being a Brat Packer was synonymous with being listless, or not taking their craft seriously.

Nelson recalled the blowback was immediate: Managers told him to stop socializing with his friends for fear he’d be stigmatized as unreliable. “These were people I worked with, who I really liked as people, funny, smart, committed to the work,” he said in 2013. “I mean, no one was professionally irresponsible. And after that article, not only [were] we strongly encouraged not to work with each other again, and for the most part we haven’t, but it was insinuated we might not want to be hanging out with these people.”

Universal Pictures

Some of the actors went on The Phil Donahue Show to criticize the profile, asserting that their remarks to Blum had been off-the-record. (Blum denied this.) Lowe told the media that Blum had “burned bridges” and that he was “no Hunter S. Thompson.” Andrew McCarthy called Blum a “lazy … journalist” and found the idea of an actor “tribe” absurd—he had never even met Anthony Michael Hall.

Unfortunately, the name stuck. “Brat Pack” was infectious—a catch-all for the kind of young performer emerging in the ‘80s who could be seen in multiple ensemble movies. While Blum would later express regret over the label, it’s never quite left the public consciousness. In 2005, Universal released a DVD boxed set—The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Sixteen Candles—as The Brat Pack Collection.

Nelson, Estevez, and Lowe never again appeared in a movie together. “Personally, the biggest disappointment about it is that ‘Brat Pack’ will somehow figure in my obituary at [the] hands of every lazy and unoriginal journalist,” Estevez told a reporter in 2011. “Warning: My ghost will come back and haunt them.”

Nelson was slightly less forgiving. In a 2013 podcast, he chastised Blum for his mischaracterization of the group of young actors. “I would have been better served following my gut feeling and knocking him unconscious.”

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