Surf Words Are Up! The Language of Surfing

Stand up paddle surfing on the huge waves off Sunset Beach

Since hitting the waves hit the mainstream in the early 1960s, surfing has spawned an entire culture — clothes, music, movies, and a bitchin’ lexicon.

While the act of surfing got its start by Polynesian fishermen thousands of years ago, the word surf is from the 17th century. Originally used to describe the coast of India, surf may come from an Indian language, or else is a variant of sough, a soft, rustling noise.

The verb to surf came about much later, around 1917. It was then, says HowStuffWorks, that surfing gained popularity with renowned boardsmen Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth, often dubbed the “father of modern surfing” (and who passed away, sadly, at 35 during the 1918 flu pandemic). The word surfing entered English more than 40 years later, in the mid-1950s.

Of course surfing is nothing without a surfboard (or surfbort, as Bey would say). In Hawaii back in the day, the length of your board echoed your status in the community: the longer your board, the more important you were. Nowadays, surfers use a variety of sizes, depending on their needs.

According to SurfScience, the longboard is the most traditional and good for beginners; the shortboard “reinvented surfing in the 1970s”; and the funboard is wider than but not as long as the longboard. The fish is fish-shaped, the egg egg-shaped, and the gun is for “chasing big game,” ie big waves, and is also known as the rhino chaser or elephant gun. A whole collection of boards is a quiver.

Now that you’ve got your surfboard, you’ll need to get past the breaking waves. With a shortboard, you can duck dive, or push your board nose-first underwater, like a duck diving for food. With a longboard, you’ll have to turtle roll, which involves rolling your board upside down as the wave gets close, then right side up once the wave passes. (Turtles do indeed roll, specifically when they’re fighting or mating.)

Next is standing up. Are you regular foot? That means your left foot is forward, like most right-handed surfers. Or are you goofy-foot, right foot forward? Perhaps you can surf regular or goofy, in which case you’re a switch-foot.

As a novice surfer, you might get called lots of names. Grommet for instance, which might come from the Old French grommet, “boy, young man,” or jake, perhaps from a 19th century meaning, “rustic lout.” You might get branded a kook, a barney, or a gremlin. And watch out if someone dubs you a quimby: they could mean a beginning surfer but they could also mean jerk or loser, especially if you’re guilty of snaking, or “stealing” a wave from a fellow surfer although he has the right of way.

Another jerk-term is hodad, someone who comes to the beach with surf gear but never surfs. Where the word comes from is unknown although one theory says it’s a contraction of hoodlum.

Surfing enthusiasts in general are surf-bums, surfies, and waxheads, referring to the wax used to make surfboards less slippery. If you’re a a woman who surfs, you might be referred to as a gurfer, a girl surfer, or a wahine, a Hawaiian term for a Polynesian woman as well as surf slang for a female surfer.

Another Hawaiian surfing term is big kahuna, which originally referred to a prominent priest or sage in Hawaii, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and now means an expert surfer, a really big wave, or any bigwig. Kahuna comes from the Hawaiian word for shaman or wizard.

Now how about those moves? Ride with all 10 toes over the nose of your board and you’re hanging ten. Cheat with just one foot and you’re cheating five. Performing superbly? You’re shredding.

Do a misterioso and you’re bending over with your head hidden in your hands. Perform a quasimodo and you’re hunched — like Victor Hugo’s hunchback of Notre Dame — at the front of your board with “head down, one arm forward and one arm back,” as per the OED. As for the name Quasimodo, that comes from a Latin Easter psalm, quasi modo geniti infantes, “as newborn babes,” referring to the hunchback’s being abandoned as an infant at Notre Dame on Easter Sunday.

Even for experts accidents are unavoidable. When a surfer is rubbished, she’s tipped off a wave, resulting in a wipeout, which, thanks to the Surfaris, most of us are familiar with. A tombstone is what a wiped-out surfer’s surfboard looks like, and getting rag dolled means getting shaken like, you guessed it, a rag doll by a powerful wave.

A wave that might rag doll you is a very large one known as the pipeline, which also refers to the hollow part of such a wave. A greenie is a large wave before it breaks. Small yet perfect waves are nugs, perhaps from the meaning a piece of marijuana, while waves too small to surf are ankle busters.

Point break (in addition to being a movie) refers to “a long-lasting type of wave,” says the OED, which forms “when the swell moves around the land almost at a right angle to the beach and a break which begins near the point gradually progresses along the wave.”

A tube is a wave with a hollow space. Macks or mackers are giant tubes and get their name from the idea that they’re so big, you could drive a Mack truck through them. The inside of a tube is known as the green room or glass house due to its appearance, as well as the pope’s living room, perhaps with the idea that the inside of a wave is a heavenly place.

Tube also gives us tubular: tubular waves are excellent for riding, therefore tubular means excellent. Other “excellent” slang terms that have transcended waves are radical, surfing that’s challenging or extreme, and gnarly, conditions that are dangerous.

Finally, while cowabunga has become associated with surf culture, it didn’t begin that way. The interjection originated in 1954 as a fake Native American word on The Howdy Doody Show. A character, Chief Thunderthud, used the term as an “exclamation of surprise and anger.” By the 1960s, cowabunga was used as a “shout of triumph” by surfers, and by the late 1980s had “spread worldwide” with The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Now what are you waiting for? Put on your wettie, get out the longboard, and catch some waves.

[Photo via Flickr: “Stand up paddle surfing on the huge waves off Sunset Beach,” CC BY 2.0 by Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ]