Outside the context of surfing, ‘Barney’ has to be one of the funniest insults. After all, it’s just someone’s first name. Replace it with another, and the entire sentiment is lost. “Off my wave, f-ing Ronnie!” Now it just sounds like you’re yelling at a guy named Ronnie. What?
But among surfers, a Barney is universally a beginner, someone who doesn’t belong. Like kook, but not tossed around so much that it loses meaning. No, to be called a Barney in the lineup means that wordsmith reserved his coup de grâce of insults specifically for you, amigo. But don’t worry. It happens to the best of us.
Apparently, the word is of unknown origin, with a handful of competing theories. Let’s examine the most convincing 3 one-by-one:
(skip to the 1:30 mark in the video above)
“What’s a Barney?” asks Rick, right after meeting Turtle in North Shore. “Uh, it’s like, uh, barn-o, barnyard. Like a haole to the max. A kook in and out of the water, yeah?” Turtle responds.
Popular belief holds that ‘Barney’ came about as a reference to someone being from the farm (i.e. living in a barn, being from the barnyard). In other words, not from the coast – someone that was new to surfing. Similar insults exist now in Southern California to mock ‘zonies’ (people from Arizona) in San Diego, ‘909-ers’ (people from San Bernardino/Riverside area) in Orange County, or ‘valley kooks’ (people from the San Fernando Valley) in Los Angeles. So it stands to reason that Barney would evolve out similar sentiment.
But this derivation is even contested down to where it originated. In an interview with website Sixties Cinema, John Philbin (who played Turtle) explains that the word was invented by Brian King, a North Shore kid that inspired the character of Turtle for the film. “Brian King stayed with me and we basically went over that script word for word,” Philbin says. “He invented so many of the surf jargon used like “Barney,’ ‘Not’ and that long sentence at the end of the movie.” This would give ‘Barney’ Hawaiian roots, but many believe it to have California origins.
2. Barney Fife
To think that a surf term came out of a popular TV show isn’t farfetched in the least. One of the clearest examples of which is the phrase “cowabunga”, which derives from Chief Thunderthud’s greeting on The Howdy Doody Show. Barney Fife, from The Andy Griffith Show, was a lovably flighty deputy that served as the show’s comic relief. To call someone a ‘Barney’, i.e. a bumbling idiot, would make sense here.
3. Barney Rubble
In the same vein as the Barney Fife origin story, numerous sources suggest that the true origin of the insult used in surfing has its roots in The Flinstones. In a blog post on USC’s Digital Folklore Archives, author Hannah Pruett explains that a friend explained the terms origins as relating to the classic cartoon. “He believes the term may have originated with surfers around his father’s age of 68, whom are familiar with the cartoon the Flinstones. In the show, Barney is the character who is regarded as a fool.”
“If this truly is the case of the origin,” she goes on, “it makes sense as Barney is the screw-up, comic relief, however he is lovable and forgivable. A Barney in this case is definitely not lovable.”
This origin holds weight as well, considering the names of other characters entered the American english vernacular as slang terms – for instance referring to a beautiful woman as a ‘Betty’.
Think one makes more sense than the rest? Or got any competing origin stories? Leave them in the comments!