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Shakespearan Literature to Surfing Slang, The Path of Language Flows

I am not a fan of William Shakespeare’s writings. I have to admit, the guy added to our language through his use of the language. He’s credited with the first use of the word “gnarled” in 1604 in his play “Measure for Measure”.

“For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.”
— Measure for Measure, Act II, Scene 2

Isabella, a chaste and pious woman, is arguing with Lord Angelo in defense of her brother. He’s sentenced to death for having sex with his common-law wife and getting her pregnant. She doesn’t defend the crime, she is arguing for mercy.

Angelo has sentenced one man to death for sex outside marriage. He now presses Isabella into having sex with him on the promise of sparing her brother. Some things never change.

The Unbreakable Gnarl

Shakespeare’s use of gnarled was to invoke the image of an old, weathered and twisted tree. Hard to break into pieces. Gnarled is often used to described an older person who shows their age and the ravages of a hard life.

There is a beauty to gnarls. In nature they are usually formed when something has damaged a tree. The tree will reform around the wound in an almost protective way. The gnarls give the wound strength and character.

I have a tree in my yard that I see when I look out my kitchen window. Years ago the tree split, one part falling onto my house and the other remained standing.

I’ve watched over the years as the tree’s grown around and over the split. It’s still a gaping wound but the growth has given the remaining tree strength.

Not All Gnarls Are Visible

Events in my own life have left me needing to mentally create gnarls around gaping wounds. Like that tree, they never close. The gnarls around the edges of the wounds, they let the rest of life flow on around them.

Life will splash into the wounds and stir things up. The gnarls are there to help separate life from the wounds.

400 Years of Wordolution — Yep, I Made Up A Word

One of the things I love about words is how they change over the years. Gnarled is still gnarled. It still means something that is knotty, misshaped or made rough by age or hard work.

From gnarled has come the word, gnarly.

Gnarly takes us from Shakespeare to surfing. In particular the American surfing culture of the 1970s.

The Emergence of the Surfing Culture

Surfing, or the riding of waves, goes back to the ancient Polynesians. Surfing culture was part of the culture by the time James Cook visited Hawaii on his first voyage. By tradition the chief was the most skilled wave rider in the community.

The ruling class had the best beaches and the best boards. Commoners could gain access to those beaches and boards by demonstrating their skills. Surfing was not a recreational activity, extreme sport or career as it has evolved to. It was an art.

After contact with Europeans, the local culture became suppressed. Europeans arrived in Hawaii bringing Christian culture with them. They pressed the locals into adopting Christian culture. Surfing became a frivolous activity.

Surfing saw a resurgence of popularity after Hawaiian beaches became tourist destinations. Many rich Americans saw the locals surfing and wanted to try it. It was a new sport for them.

The interest gave the locals opportunity to reassert their culture. They started teaching and demonstrating surfing to the whites. A borderland formed. Hawaiians inverted the dominant social structure leaving the whites uncertain about their dominance.

State-sanctioned authority is often absent from borderlands. Unique social and cultural identities emerge. From the surfing borderland emerged the surfing culture. This has spread around the world where there are waves to ride.

Surfing in the Twentieth Century

The sport spread around the world. The centers of dominance became Hawaii, Australia and California. Interest in surfing exploded after the 1959 movie Gidget. Surfing culture evolved on its own. It would often change from decade to decade.

By the 1960s surfing became very popular with teenagers. Part of the surf culture saw individuals and groups claiming key surfing spots as their own. The skateboard developed as a way to surf on land. The 1970s saw an emergence of hotdogging performance.

The Emergence of Surfer Slang

Any culture forms its own slang as it develops. Surfing culture varies around the world. In Southern California the surfing slang comingled with Valleyspeak. From that union we received words like “dude”, “tubular”, “radical” and — “gnarly”.

A word used among surfers around the world is “stoked”. It’s a mixed feeling of anxiety and happiness toward breaking waves. Surfers are often associated with being slackers or beach bums.

Interesting how many of those terms have entered our own lexicon.

Gnarly Surfer Slang

Gnarled trees merge into surfing lingo and comes out as gnarly. When applied to surfing, gnarly is a large, difficult and dangerous wave.

Which likely explains how the word spread out into varied meanings in our lexicon.

Gnarly is used to describe both good and bad events. Like most slang, it can mean different things to different people. A quick look at the Urban Dictionary shows some interesting perceptions of the word.

“Gnarly is when you’ve gone beyond radical, beyond extreme, its balls out danger &/or perfection, and/or skill or all of that combined.”

“Grotesque, yet awesome. ‘That scar’s fucking gnarly’”

“Original from 70’s surfspeak to describe waves that are violently breaking without the form that would render them rideable. Can also describe less than ideal females.”

“When a person or thing that was once beautiful or nice to look upon becomes altered losing the beauty it once had, no longer being desirable due to lack of maintenance.”

“Off the hook, totally extreme — That was a gnarly wipe out!!!”

“A word that is overused by the cast of the Laguna Beach. It means crazy, rad, totally ficking awesome.”

There is a common thread though. A certain unbending strength forged in the act or appearance described.

“All living things are gnarly, in that they inevitably do things that are much more complex than one might have expected.” — Rudy Rucker

It seems that Shakespeare’s rather obscure use of the word ‘gnarled’ has led the world on a winding, complex path. Emerging at a gnarly time indeed.