Hansie Smit
Hansie Smit

What are these surfers talking about?

With the Jeffreys Bay Billabong Pro struggling this year in near-perfect weather I think it’s a good idea to explore the bizarre way these people talk to each other. As a Jeffreys Bay inhabitant myself I’ve had many conversations with surfers over the years and often walked away confused as to what the hell just happened.

In addition to using slang stalwarts like bru and dude, surfers exhibit an amazing ability to come up with new words to describe their immediate surroundings. For all we know there’s a core group of them sitting with pens in a circle deep in the ocean brainstorming (slowly, of course) new words to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world. When inspiration hits and a new word is born and everyone is happy with it they send someone to shore to share it with the colony on the mainland.

“Gnarly, bru. That’s the new one.”

“Ghnarly?”

“No gnarly. The G is silent.”

Gnarly, it seems, is used to describe anything and everything. Waves can be gnarly, food can be gnarly, even a movie can be gnarly. Under no circumstances should gnarly be confused with its actual meaning which is “an adjective used to describe the knobs and knots on old persons and trees”. That’s just gross. Gnarly describes cool stuff. Used in its purest form, gnarly describes something that’s both good and bad at the same time. Or rather cool and badass. So for instance, if someone rolls his car off Chapman’s Peak drive and survives — it’s gnarly. If he dies — it’s a bummer. This edge to the word makes me think it comes from “snarling” with the nasal “n” thrown in for effect. It’s a possibility. When I first heard the word I thought Gnarls Barkley had something to do with it. Google says he didn’t.

The other really popular word among surfers today is stoked. Stoked appears to describe the feeling you get when you do something so fast and furiously it leaves you almost choked up with excitement. There is absolutely no link to Stoke’s Law, used to describe the frictional force exerted on spherical objects in a continuous viscous fluid. When you’re in a state of stoke you’re accelerating forward, not slowing down. Stoke doesn’t have any superlatives. You’re either stoked or really stoked. In addition to describing intense emotion, the word can also be use as a noun — The Stoke. I imagine The Stoke as a fire truck-size hose someone in need of stoke can attach to their mouth and be pumped full of pure adrenalin at several litres per second. Unfortunately this very exciting word has lost a bit of shine of late with surfers using it describe just about any emotion they feel.

“How do you feel about your mother’s cancer recovery?”

“Stoked, bru. Really stoked about it.”

Hey look, not sommer anyone can be a surfer. Surfing is very gnarly and if being stoked makes you talk like a retard at a two-year-old’s birthday party so be it. At least they’re pushing the envelope, expanding the English language. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next. Maybe a new word for what it’s like to do absolutely nothing for 10 years running. Or a slang term for Zen. Of course when the chips are down anyone in a wetsuit will be well advised to stick to good old tried and tested words like, “Shark!” and “Swim!”