Lexiculture: gnarly

Mallory Moore

Wayne State University

Cite as: Moore, Mallory. 2016. Gnarly. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 3. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/gnarly.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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Gnarly is a word that can show us a lot about the differences in society. By studying the word gnarly, we can clearly see how much of an effect different cultures have on the meanings of words. The original form of the word gnarly is an adjective meaning mangled and twisted, but it evolved to be a exclamation meaning awesome and cool. The real mystery is, how can one culture have such a major impact on the meaning of a word that is used by an entire nation of people?The word “gnarly” originated from the mispronunciation of the word “knurl”, which means twisted, deformed, rugged, and timeworn (alphaDictionary).  The word was eventually taken over by the Californian surfer culture in the 1970s and 1980s to describe intense and rough waves. Given the fact that surfers intentionally seek out these specific types of waves, the term eventually became synonymous with words like “awesome” and “incredible”.

This new definition was a very drastic change from the word’s original meaning. According to the website Urban Dictionary, “Gnarly is when you’ve gone beyond radical, beyond extreme, it’s balls out danger, & or perfection, & or skill or all of that combined”(Urban Dictionary). The original meaning of the word was not found on Urban Dictionary. This shows how prominent the words used by the surfer culture are to the other general members or society. According to the Surflibrary.com page, Surfin’ USA, “Among surfers (with whom the word is most commonly identified), “gnarly” may have first been used at a California surf spot where Torrey pine or Monterey cyprus trees grew (Picture to the left). Their gnarled roots and branches may have inspired comparisons with the waves. In California surfer slang, “gnarly” came to be used to describe complicated, rapidly changing surf conditions.”(Nguyen). It is very intriguing to find out just how this drastic change occurred. How could a negative, descriptive word, meaning twisted and disgusting, change so quickly to a slang word meaning awesome and intense from such a small group’s decision to use a word differently?

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Batchelder, Steve, and Molly Batchelder. Under a Monterey Cypress Canopy. N.d. Magnificent Trees Photo Gallery, Point Lobos. SBCA Tree Consulting. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

The base word for gnarly, knurl, in its noun form, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A small projection, protuberance, or excrescence; a knot, knob, boss, nodule, etc.; a small bead or ridge, especially one of a series worked upon a metal surface for ornamentation or other purpose.” (OED). When looking at this definition, it is not a far reach to the original definition of gnarly. In its verb form its definition is “To make knurls, beadings, or ridges (on the edge of a coin, a screw-head, etc.); to mill, to crenate.”(OED). When looking at the verb form of the word, it is easier to see both definitions of the word gnarly and how they relate to each other.  The verb form of this word appeared over 250 years after the noun appeared.

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As shown in the chart above, the words “gnarl” and “knurl,” were used almost interchangeably for most of the years of their popularity. Between 1940 and 1960, the popularity of their use in American English began to plummet. After these uses declined, they remained pretty consistent until 1980, when the meaning of the word “gnarly” changed. At this point in time, there was a drastic spike in its use in American society. When the spike occurred, the use of the related words further decreased, and they have remained at a very low rates of use ever since.

The original form of the word “gnarly” was just used for descriptions. The use of the word in this form, can be seen through this excerpt from the article “Madame Brownie’s Mourning” by Mrs. Celestia Rice Colby in the journal, The Little Pilgrim. Here, it is clear that the word gnarly is meant to help the reader visualize the “boughs” in which they are describing. Other than the word “gnarly”, descriptive words in the sentence are old, torn, and discolored (Colby 80). Even if the reader did not know what the word “gnarly” meant, it is clear from the context that this is a negative term.

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Colby, Celestia Rice. “Madame Brownie’s Mourning.” The Little Pilgrim. Ed. Grace Greenwood. Vol. 11. Philadelphia: n.p., 1864. 80-81. Print.

During the 1980s, the new definition was still unknown to most of society outside of the surfer culture. This can be shown by the excerpt below from the book Directions 1983 by Phyllis Rosenzweig. It shows the word “gnarly” being used to describe the hand position of Saint Louis of France in a work of art. The word “gnarly,” is written in quotes and given a definition in the book, which is that it means “wow, cherry, bitchin’, for sure, all that surfer, valley-girl type lingo” (Rosenzweig 47). The fact that in this book, the word “gnarly” is put in quotes is evidence that this definition of the word is not yet widely known and it was still necessary to provide the definition or else people would not understand.

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Rosenzweig, Phyllis D. Directions 1983. Washington, D.C.: Published for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by the Smithsonian Institution, 1983. 47. Print.

When the term was adopted by the Californian Surfer culture after 1980, the use of the phrase “totally gnarly” came into use and became very popular as show by the Google Ngram Viewer chart below. Before 1980, this phrase did not exist. After the phrase was associated with the surfer culture, it’s popularity was drastically increased when words like “awesome, righteous, totally, and gnarly” were included in movies like “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” which were set in California and were released in the early 80s. One of the tag lines for the movie was “It’s Awesome! Totally Awesome!” (Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Transcript). The actors who portrayed characters acting as stereotypical “surfer dudes”. The popularity of these movies in the early 1980s and 1990s had a major impact on the conversation style of many teenagers growing up during this period. Hearing these phrases in movies, brought them to the attention of the American public, and teenagers around the nation soon picked up the surfer language.

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When the word “gnarly” became popular around the nation, it was picked up and evolved further by many other cultural groups. The word was picked up by the skateboarding and snowboarding subcultures and often shortened to Gnar. An example of the word “gnarly” being used in these subcultures, would sound like “It’s pretty gnarly out, Bro. It’s double overhead today!” (Stone). This form of the word is used in the same was as the surfer culture in phrases like “shredding the gnar” (Stone).  According to Will Mari, in his opinion column, gnar is “used by snowboarders and skiers to refer to snow, especially to the fabled fluff that is the ‘gnar gnar’.”(Mari). Mari goes on to describe the snow as being “the deepest of the deep. The driest of the dry. The powest of the pow pow” (i.e. powder): in other words, the best possible snow to ski, sled, and ride on.”(Mari). This form of the word has strong similarities to the word “gnarly,” the only difference is they are used by different cultural groups. Even though it may not be obvious to someone who is not involved in surfing, skateboarding, or snowboarding, the members of each group have their own individual linguistic differences.

In recent years, the popularity of the word “gnarly” has remained relatively steady, with a slight decline in its use. When the term is used in television shows, it is used in a comedic fashion, by a person who speaks in the surfer accent, and is only ever talking about surfing. This can be seen in television shows such as Spongebob Squarepants. The excerpt below, from an episode of SpongeBob called “SpongeBob Square pants vs. The Big One” shows the word gnarly as a way of mocking the surfer culture, as opposed to just using the word. You can also see the mocking qualities by the name and description of the surfer in this passage. The name “Jack Kahuna Laguna” is clearly meant to make fun of the language of the surfer culture. Another example showing how the surfer culture is portrayed in today’s society, through the character portrayal of “Kyle the Surfer Dude” is in the television show “The Amanda Show”. This character is meant to sound uneducated, which gave the viewers of the show a negative concept of the members of the surfer culture and their distinct linguistic aspects. This negative portrayal, in turn, gives the terms they use, like gnarly, negative aspects as well. The word “gnarly” in the form of surfer speak, is still in use today, but has acquired a negative connotation over the years.

SpongeBob: It’s JKL! Hail O great swami of the Gnarly Pounders! We seek audience with thee.

Patrick: Plus, we wanna talk to you.

SpongeBob: Will you teach us how to surf, O great one, so we may get back home? [JKL says nothing]

Patrick:

Squidward: Look, surf-boy, are you gonna teach us how to surf, or are we just gonna stand here and stare at you all day?

Patrick: I kinda like staring at him.

[Jack Kahuna Laguna jumps into the water with his surfboard. SpongeBob, Patrick, and Squidward stare at him. Dolphins jump near the back of JKL’s surfboard. SpongeBob and Patrick start to tear up]

SpongeBob: I’ve never seen anything more beautiful. Have you, Patrick?

Patrick: Not since I saw my first triple-layer cheese cake.

JKL:.. was your first lesson. [returns to his hut]

“SpongeBob SquarePants vs. The Big One (transcript).” Encyclopedia SpongeBobia. N.p., 17 Apr. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

The word “gnarly” has evolved a great deal over time. It has changed from a physical attribute on the surface of a tree to surfer-speak for awesome and intense. It has gone from the standard teenage way of talking, to being a means of portraying a negative stereotype. It has even gone through drastic geographic changes from a strictly California origin to skateboarders and snowboarding to virtually the entire teenage American population in the 1980s. Television and movies were the driving force behind the popularization, as well as the slow decline of this word. Language changes, depending on what we hear regularly, and which cultural groups we choose to be a part of.

References

Batchelder, Steve, and Molly Batchelder. Under a Monterey Cypress Canopy. N.d. Magnificent Trees Photo Gallery, Point Lobos. SBCA Tree Consulting. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

Colby, Celestia Rice. “Madame Brownie’s Mourning.” The Little Pilgrim. Ed. Grace Greenwood. Vol. 11. Philadelphia: n.p., 1864. 80-81. Print.

Fast times at Ridgemont High. Dir. Amy Heckerling. By Cameron Crowe. Perf. Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Judge Reinhold. Universal Studios, 1982. Transcript.

“gnarly, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 10 November 2014.

“Gnarly.” AlphaDictionary * Free English Online Dictionary * Grammar * Word Fun. N.p., 2014. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

“Google Ngram Viewer.” Google Ngram Viewer. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

“knurl | nurl, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 10 November 2014.

Mari, Will. “Will’s Word of the Week: “gnarly”” The Daily. N.p., 4 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Nguyen, Céline. “SURFIN’ USA.” Surf Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Rippa, Sandy’s. “Gnarly.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., 8 July 2003. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.

Rosenzweig, Phyllis D. Directions 1983. Washington, D.C.: Published for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by the Smithsonian Institution, 1983. 47. Print.

“Search Totally Kyle Images.” Imgfave. N.p., 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

“SpongeBob SquarePants vs. The Big One (transcript).” Encyclopedia SpongeBobia. N.p., 17 Apr. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Stone, Madeline. “12 Sayings Only People From California Will Understand.” Business Insider Australia. N.p., 6 Nov. 2014. Web. 8 Nov. 2014.

 

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