A common idiom
used to describe something that’s held in high esteem. The phrase usually refers to something temporally proximate - of the times
- thereby grooving with the hip
part. For example:
However, you wouldn’t say:
It might work on occasion, but as a general rule avoid pre-20th century references. They’re usually either blatantly uncool, or existing in a state of pre-coolness - like Plato
, who were thrown into Limbo
because, despite their obvious coolness
, were born in a state of pre-Christianity
. So Dante
couldn’t let them into Heaven
, and had to settle with giving them a comfy version of Hell
Which brings us to the question that everyone’s heard some uncool dork ask at least once:
How can something be "cool as hell?" Don’t you know that’s an oxymoron?
Right. Hell is full of flames, an Inferno, real fucking hot. This is what the dominant imagery tells us, the imagery that’s been shoved down children’s throats to scare the living sin out of them, of which no greater description may exist than James Joyce’s :
Our earthly fire again, no matter how fierce or widespread it may be, is always of a limited extent; but the lake of fire in hell is boundless, shoreless and bottomless. It is on record that the devil himself, when asked the question by a certain soldier, was obliged to confess that if a whole mountain were thrown into the burning ocean of hell it would be burned up In an instant like a piece of wax. And this terrible fire will not afflict the bodies of the damned only from without, but each lost soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging in its very vitals. O, how terrible is the lot of those wretched beings! The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls.
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Chap.3 1
But this heartwarming prose was meant to imitate the clergy’s fear tactics, not Hell
For Hell we have two solid sources – Dante and Milton.2
In case you didn’t know, Milton’s 17th century Paradise Lost is about Satan getting booted from Heaven. It begins with his entire host landing with a loud thump in Hell, which is described as
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d only to discover sights of woe
- Paradise Lost, Book I.
Sounds a lot like Joyce’s horror story. However, Milton also has a "frozen Continent" encircling this fiery prison as a sort of barrier to keep the demons from escaping. It’s constantly bombarded with “dire Hail” “on which firm land thaws not, but gathers...deep snow and ice” (Book II). The only one that can brave it is Satan, and even he has massive problems dealing with the coolness.
So according to Milton, if something is "cool as hell," it’s so fucking cool that even demons can’t hang. And that’s pretty damn cool.
Now Dante’s Inferno is actually an ordered gradient of coolness. He divides Hell into layers according to various human sins, with each layer holding “pockets” containing the elemental conditions appropriate for its population's punishment. So some sinners stew, some freeze, and some swim in their own shit 3. But the worst sinners, like Judas and Cassius and Cain, are all immersed in the ninth and final layer, which is frozen solid. And this includes the Big Nasty himself, whose lower half is completely frozen (Cantos 31-34).
So according to Dante, to be “cool as hell” is to be the baddest motherfucker there is. And that kinda works with the phrase, doesn’t it?
So next time that snotty little dork says something can’t possibly be "cool as hell," tell him Milton and Dante totally disagree, and that Oxy isn’t the moron - he is.
1 – Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man is available on-line at
2 – Well, we could ask Sartre, but his hotel misanthropy is hardly hot, cold, or even cool. It’s more like boring.
3 - My favorite being the Flatterers, who are "plunged" into a "ditch" of "excrement that seemed as if it had been poured from human privies." Condemned to eternally swim in their own shit.