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Surf’s up at the OED

The vocabulary of surfing in the English language has a long history. In 1798 Ebenezer Townsend, Jr., the supercargo (a representative of the ship’s owner) on the sealing ship Neptune, sailed into the Hawaiian Islands and recorded in his diary of 30 August, “They [sc. the natives] sometimes make use of surf-boards. The surf-board is about their own length and floats them lighter.” This is the OED’s first documented evidence for the word surfboard. However, the OED cites an earlier account of surfboards in Hawaii, in 1784 by Lieutenant James King, commander of the HMS Discovery – but he uses the word plank (still used today to describe a type of heavy surfboard): “If..they should not be able to keep their plank in a proper direction on the top of the swell, they are left exposed to the fury of the next, and, to avoid it, are obliged again to dive and regain the place, from which they set out.”

Surfboards have changed considerably since the 18th century, especially with regard to the evolution in shaping foam boards. There are now pop outs (a mass-produced surfboard, a term currently dated to 1962), guns (a large heavy surfboard used for riding big waves, 1963), pintails (a surfboard with a back which tapers to a point, 1967), thrusters (a surfboard capable of greater speed and manoeuvrability than a standard model, with one central fin and provision for additional fins, 1982), and many more.

Mark Twain surf-bathes (almost) in Hawaii

Early in the development and growth of surfing, there was some jostling for what to call the sport and the person who rides waves. The native Hawaiians called it he’e nalu, literally meaning ‘wave sliding’. The OED currently cites 1854 as the first usage for surf-riding, 1903 for surfboarding, and in 1872 we have Mark Twain using the term surf-bathing. In Roughing It Twain notes, “I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself” (an all too familiar story for anybody who has ever tried to surf). It wouldn’t be until 1896 that the term surfing, as a sport, would first appear in print.

Equally, the term surfer would take a while to gain widespread use, mainly because the relevant sense of the verb to surf is not recorded until 1891. The first quotation for surf-rider comes from 1851, and that for surfboarder in 1909. The OED’s  first printed use of surfer comes from the Hawaiian Gazette in 1907: “In this issue will be found a snapshot of Freeth riding the breakers, the picture being pronounced the very best ever taken of a surfer in action.” The Freeth referred to is George Freeth, an Irish-Hawaiian surfer who would be the first to popularize surfing in Southern California. The railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington invited Freeth to Redondo Beach in 1907, where he had just built a new railroad from Los Angeles, to put on a demonstration of surfing to a crowd of thousands, and thus the early seed of surfing, surf culture, and its language was sown on the mainland.

Hollywood catches a wave

Still, surfing would grow relatively slowly from the late 18th century to its landfall in California at the beginning of the 20th century, not least struggling to survive the Calvinist missionary repression in Hawaii in the 19th century. Not until an overly caricatured portrayal of Californian surf culture in a popular film called Gidget (1959), and in conjunction with the development of lighter surfboards in the 1950s and 1960s, would surfing catch the popular imagination, and, cowabunga!, unleash a torrent of new surf terms. The following are all currently dated by the OED to the late 1950s or early 1960s: bail (to jump or dive off a surfboard in order to avoid injury when a fall seems imminent), ding (a dent or hole in a surfboard), goofy foot (one who rides a surfboard with the right foot forward instead of the left), hodad (a person who does not surf or pretends to be a surfer), radical (challenging, extreme), surf-bum (a surfing enthusiast), surf music, surf’s up, surfari (a journey made by surfers in search of good surfing conditions), and surf wax (wax applied to the deck of a surfboard to provide traction), to mention only a few.

Big Kahuna

However, Hawaiian and Polynesian culture and the ‘aloha spirit’ (attested by the OED to 1915) would still hold a strong influence over surfing and surf language, even as Californian and Australian surf culture, terms, and slang proliferated. Big Kahuna, in a surfing context, refers to a particularly skilled or respected surfer, but initially designated a prominent priest, sage, or healer in Hawaiian culture. Also, to pearl, (which the OED dates to 1967) which describes the moment when the nose of a surfboard ploughs under the water and the surfer wipes-out (in turn, dated to 1962) is a shortening of ‘to pearl-dive’ which first appears in print in 1937 in Hawaiian Surfboard by Tom Blake: “The first boy is no doubt inexperienced for he was too far over in the break which caused him and his board to ‘pearl dive’, or go straight down towards the bottom giving him a severe ducking.” And lastly, wahine (1963), the Hawaiian for woman, is used to refer to a female surfer.

Perhaps it is the protean nature of waves and the sea which has spawned such an expressive and varied lexicon of surfing terminology. And ‘like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore’ (I would like to think Shakespeare kept an eye on the surf), the once beach-bound language of surfing has made its way far beyond the wave-lashed margins of the world’s oceans and is found in many landlocked regions, even lapping Oxford’s cobbled shore.

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