Jargon Watch: Surfer Slang And The Language Of The Waves

If your knowledge of surfers stops after “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” you might want to learn a little bit more about the sport’s lingo.
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Jargon Watch: Surfer Slang And The Language Of The Waves

Surfing holds a special spot in American culture. It’s a pretty small sport in the country — after all, most people don’t live near a surfing beach — but it has spawned countless movies, songs and summer romances. And thanks to this pop-culture saturation, you probably have heard a decent amount of surfer slang before, and might even have your own surfer impression sprinkled with abundant “gnarly”s and “far out”s.

Are surfers really still out there yelling “cowabunga!” and talking about “hanging ten,” though? In this Jargon Watch, we look at the history of surfer slang, as well as the sport itself. Surf’s up!

The Origins Of Surfing

Historians currently believe that surfing in some form existed in many places in the tropics, but it was Hawaii where it first came into its own. Ancient Hawaiians regularly practiced surfing as an art form for a very long time, and it was recorded by Captain James Cook when he first visited the island in 1778, which was the first contact between Hawaiians and the Western world.

The earliest surfing language, then, wasn’t English at all, but Hawaiian. And while the Hawaiian language does not have a massive influence on modern surfer slang, it’s not entirely absent. Wahine, for example, is a Hawaiian word for a Maori or Polynesian woman, but it is also used in English to refer to a female surfer. Other Hawaiian words, like aloha (a greeting) or mahalo (“thank you”), are also sometimes roped into the surfing world. And the hand symbol that is often interpreted as “hang loose” — a fist from which the pinky and thumb are extended — is actually the Hawaiian shaka, a traditional form of greeting.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that surfing really spread throughout the world. There were attempts to turn surfing into a tourist attraction in Hawaii, but because of the exorbitant costs of traveling to the islands, surfing became more successful as a cultural export.

Much of surfing’s rise to fame can be attributed to just two people: Native Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku and American George Freeth. Kahanamoku, an Olympic athlete and one of the most successful surfers in history, traveled to Australia and brought surfing with him, showing the sport off in Sydney. Similarly, Freeth was brought from Hawaii to California by Henry Huntington to demonstrate his surfing skills as a means of publicity for a new railroad. Freeth traveled up and down the coast showing off the sport, and it soon caught on.

The Rise Of Surf Culture

In the decades following surfing’s introduction around the world, the sport attracted more and more interest. Yet it’s undeniable that the peak of surfing attention was in the 1960s, and much of that was thanks to two pop culture phenomena: the Beach Boys and Gidget.

You probably already know the Beach Boys — a band that keyed into the growing surf culture — but you may be less familiar with Gidget. First a book in 1957 and then a movie in 1959, Gidget was a coming-of-age story about a young girl who learns to surf. For those familiar with young adult fiction, this premise is probably not too unusual, but Gidget was able to tap into the cultural zeitgeist, and it inspired a genre of surf film and television shows. Gidget was arguably not the best representation of actual surfers’ lifestyles, but it imprinted its idea of surfers onto the cultural landscape. And it also helped create the idea of the Beach Bunny, with Gidget being played by actors including Sandra Dee and Sally Field.

A side-effect of the Beach Boys and Gidget is that surfing became highly associated with a single region: southern California. And when many people think of surfer slang, it’s California that immediately comes to mind. The Californian dialect, from its use of words like “rad” and “bomb” to its accent, has become inextricably part of the American idea of surfers. At this point, however, a lot of these expressions are dated. It would be a lot to expect that surfers have spoken the same way for over 50 years. This famous example of surfer’s speech in 2009, for example, probably doesn’t sound at all like a surfer from the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s.

An Introduction To Surfer Slang

To create a more stable list of surfer slang and jargon that surfers might actually use, we decided to look at the more technical terms that are used to describe surfing. There are plenty of colorful terms around the world that surfers use, and plenty of lists on which to find them. This is only a small selection of the many, many terms out there, but these can hopefully give you a good introduction to surfer slang.

air — like many sports “air” is when a person is not touching the ground or water, and thus catching air

barrel — When a large wave is rolling over, a pocket of surfable wave will be created before the whole thing crashes down. Also called tube

choppy — a rough surface of water; the opposite of flat water

deck — the surface of the board

duck dive — when a surfer wants to get past a wave they don’t wish to surf, they can duck dive by pushing their board under the water and going beneath that wave

gnarly — dangerous waves

goofy foot — the less common stance on a surfboard, with the right foot on the front of the board and the left in back. In contrast to regular foot, and someone who can do both is a switch-foot

grom — an inexperienced surfer. Also, grommet, grommie or kook

hang five or hang ten — the numbers refer to the number of toes that are hanging off the surfboard

longboard — a board that is generally between 9 and 15 feet long

nose — the tip of the board in the front; the other side is the tail

point break — when rocks under the surface of the water make for unsafe surfing. Also, the title of a Keanu Reeves film

quiver — a collection of surfboards

re-entry — when a surfer goes over the lip of the wave, and then re-enters it

shoulder — the ride-able part of a wave

surf’s up — the waves are ready to be ridden, brah

wave height — this isn’t so much a term, but it’s an important part of surfing that differs depending on where you are. Most places measure the front of the wave from bottom to top, while Hawaiians measure from the back of the wave. Generally, this means a Hawaiian wave will be said to be about half as much as a Californian wave (a 3-foot Hawaiian wave is a 6-foot Californian wave)

whitewater — the foamy part of the wave. Also called foam

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