The origin and meaning of the word "gnarly"

July 17, 2020 | Surfing
Gnarly: a word for someone or something cool and awesome, but also gross or treacherous

The word "gnarly" is one of the most commonly used expressions in surf slang.

Wave riders have been using it for decades. When the swell is pumping, and surfers are shredding out-the-back, then we know something gnarly is taking place.

The expression often comes out of a surfer's mouth when something simultaneously spectacular and unexpected occurs.

However, you might also have witnessed it being used in a derogatory way.

But what does "gnarly" mean? When was it used for the first time? And why does it have good and bad meanings?

Let's take a deep dive into the origins and meanings of a word that is pretty much an exclamation mark in itself.

The Origins of the Word

Etymologists believe that the expression originates from the word "gnarled," which means knobbly, rough, and twisted, especially with age.

"Gnarled" is an 18th century variant of "knarled," which derives from "knar" - a knot or protuberance on a root or tree trunk.

For around 200 years (1750-1950), the word kept its literal meaning. But suddenly, some crazy people who enjoy walking on water gave it another linguistic dimension.

So, interestingly, "gnarly" evolved from something that is twisted to the epitome of cool.

Gnarled pine trees: the origin of the word 'gnarly' | Photo: Goldwaser/Creative Commons

The Adoption by Surf Culture

According to historians, California surf culture adopted the term in the 1960s and 1970s, and it spread throughout other anglophone nations such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and South Africa.

Some say it was uttered for the first time at a California surf break where Monterey cypress and Torrey pine grew.

The area was full of trees with gnarled branches and roots and they could have inspired the comparison to the surfing waves.

The word has always been part of the surfer conversations, whether between friends or at a competitive level.

The name is often used to describe a person, a situation, or something that is simultaneously exciting or cool, and dangerous or challenging, and even bad or gross.

However, within the surfing community, the adjective is mostly used to highlight a big wave, rough closeouts, or an extreme surf stunt.

Positive and Negative Connotations

The word "gnarly" can be used with both derogatory and negative connotations.

The interpretation and literal meaning of the term depend on the tone of voice and context in which it is mentioned.

In a way, it's a similar process to what happened with "broisms."

Nevertheless, in most cases, "gnarly" has a positive meaning or transmits a positive idea or feeling.

It can be used to describe something or someone awesome, cool, excellent, wonderful, amazing, radical, incredible, tough, great, intense, extreme, or fantastic.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, it's a negative or derogative term to describe something or someone grotesque, gross, difficult, dangerous, treacherous, complicated, challenging, difficult hairy, or rapidly changing.

Wipeout: that's gnarly, dude! | Photo: Shutterstock

"Gnarly": The Use in a Sentence

Let's take a look at the use of "gnarly" in daily conversations and frequent social interactions.

On a positive note, we could hear: "What a gnarly wave, dude!" or "Gnarly! That was a sick barrel, dude."

In a negative tone, we could have the following examples: "That was a pretty gnarly wipeout!" or "Look at those greasy fries - that's gnarly!"

It's interesting to notice how a single word can have opposite meanings and be used to describe something good and bad.

So, in a way, "gnarly" is a rare example of words with ambivalent signification.

How do you pronounce "gnarly"? Americans pronounce it "naar-lee," but the British make it even simpler with "naa-lee."

Popularity and Growth

The popularity of the word can be observed in the graph below.

After a spike in use (1850-1950), the expression's popularity nearly went down the drain.

However, the surfers' synonym for cool and treacherous grew exponentially in the early 1980s.

Hollywood blockbuster "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" might have helped boost the adoption of surf speak by a mainstream audience.

The movie featured a beach bum, surfer dude character - Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) - who became famous for the use of surf lingo: "It's awesome! Totally awesome!"

The impact popular culture had on daily conversations is difficult to measure, but it certainly helped bring some of these expressions into the non-surfers' dictionary.

The word kept growing into the action sports community, with skateboarders and snowboarders picking it and using it in a much broader context.

In 2009's "SpongeBob SquarePants vs. The Big One," the term was used to mock surf culture and the dumb surfer stereotype.