The long-period swell is firing, your squash-tail is waxed, and you’re amped to shred. For once, the lineup isn’t full of groms busting shuv-its, and all you want to do is get slotted before a sponger snakes your heavy tube.
If you understood that, you’re 100 percent a surfer.
An old flatland-friendly friend recently texted me about a piece I wrote for Kooks Illustrated: “Nice work, Bud, though I only understood about half of it.” It’s fair to say this could’ve been because I spent the bulk of my English class time doodling skateboarders on “3-D” halfpipes, but I’d wager that said buddy couldn’t decipher le lengua de las olas (as you can see, I also majored in Espanol).
Let’s face it. We surfers talk like idiots.
It’s a thick smoothie to swallow, I know, and you’re straight frothing to disagree. But admit it: occasionally, out amid the ankle-slappers, you find yourself tuning in to the epic claims about late drops and green rooms and how yesterday was totally mental, Brah…and you’re like: wait…is that how I sound?
Here’s a cheat-code: ask a non-surfer in your life if you sound like a lunatic when you talk about playing in the waves…especially if you’re super-stoked after a glassy morning sesh on your gun during which you got shacked until it was blown out and your arms were noodles.
Sure, part of the societal construct that is surf-speak is hyperbole. We’ve all seen the classic “Wapow” pitted surfer interview and met a few real-life Spicolis. Plus, every hobby—and every sport—has its own lexicon. Watching basketball as a newbie, you’d probably be a little overwhelmed by “Alley-Oops” and “Dropping dimes from downtown.” In the office, you’d probably want to table this and pivot, per your email, and then circle back to those TPS reports in just a bit, correct?
However, there are two characteristics that set surfing’s mother tongue apart. First, the language itself is goofy as hell, from “spongers” and “dick-draggers” to “pig dog,” “doggy door” and “grom.” “Mushy sections” should refer to the questionable chicken burrito you found in your fridge, not the chunky wave you ate it on during dawn patrol.
Second, the way in which most surfers speak – the elongated, stoned tempo, the way we stretch words for emphasis like the finest THC taffy – doesn’t do anything to change the perception that surfers are perpetually stoned to the bejesus belt.
This characterization extends beyond communication. It’s pretty easy to pick out the parents on my SoCal street who surf –read, all of them – because they dress and talk exactly like their wave-ripping groms. To many East Coast peeps, in fact, California is full of strangely happy, healthy people with names like “Coral’” and “Ocean” who, instead of spending cold seasons in dark bars drinking hazy IPAs, look like they never grew up. It’s one of my favorite things about the state.
When you hang out with your surfing buddies, a sick sesh with offshores sounds perfectly normal; but try telling your partner about the rad floater you did, despite all the logs out there. Before you even get to the kook with the total poo stance, they’ll be telling you to just clean the bathroom, already.
Even a glance at Surfline tells us that our dialect is cartoonish: this morning, for example, there’s a “slight crumble” and a “light bump, but still some corners to pick off.”
Thanks for the reporting, Reef.
Ironically, the world of surfing is known for its insightful creative writing. Writers like Kem Nunn, Don Winslow, Tim Winton and Allan Weisbecker bring the surfing life and its characters alive on the page with vivid stories told in raggedly elegant style. Author Dwyer Murphy notes that surfing “…lends itself well to literature. There are flashes of blood-pumping action, followed by long stretches of waiting, during which time a lot of thinking can be done about the nature of life and the elements, if that’s your bend.”
So, why do surfers sling such seaworthy slang? One of the key ways that sub-cultures both anchor themselves in the modern world and evolve is through the creation of language, and surf lingo is nothing new. In the 1950s and ’60s, surfers purposefully marked their flourishing culture using new expressions and slang. Some words have Hawaiian roots, of course, and California beach culture and films like Endless Summer and Gidget all had a part to play in establishing and commodifying the constantly updating dialect. Our resulting surf vernacular is dedicated to the ocean world we know and love – experiences, waves, surfboards, maneuvers; our entire lifestyle.
Professor and psychologist Katherine Kinzler would agree, as she argues that when people talk, they are not only communicating the substance of their words, but conveying their identities.
Surfers can sit and stare at the sea – even if it’s not going off – for hours. If our language is childlike, that’s because we freely admit that the ocean not only constantly shows us that we are insignificant, but also forces us to laugh at ourselves when we bail.
Perhaps the surfers’ dialect we unknowingly slip into is a way to separate ourselves from the pencil-pushing, pigskin-tossing masses. A way to show people that while some of us now have jobs and responsibilities, we remain obsessed with the simple act of riding waves. Maybe we speak slowly because our brains are perpetually divided between the fleeting memory of our last good wave, and the prospect of a sublime morning session at dawn…um, what were you saying, again, my dude?
We may sound like baked teenagers, but William Finnegan, author of the surf classic Barbarian Days, states that surfers are tasked with “intellectual work” on the daily. Finnegan notes “…that’s what people are doing in the water, this very close study of all the variables of wind and tide and turns, the size of the swell and the type and all these inexpressible variables that go into predicting what the ocean’s going to do.”
Heady claim, brah. But, the next time you rag-doll down the face of a closeout, take that split-second to think about what the ocean is saying to you, and how that will change your perception of not only the conditions, but yourself.
I lived in Lake Tahoe years back, and spent many dawn patrols swimming in Sierra cement. I’ll never forget the day a long-time local skied past our crew on one of the season’s deepest days. “Gnar gnar pow pow, boys!” he shouted, pumping his poles.
We laugh about it to this day, but we knew what he meant. It wasn’t about the ridiculous jargon, but the pure stoke emanating from the core of his goggles and wispy beard.
Every sub-culture comes with its own language, its own peculiar way of speaking.
Ours is just a lot cooler than the others.