The words you need to know before skateboarding
Skateboarding began in California in the 1940s, invented by surfers looking for excitement when the waves were too flat to surf; the earliest skateboards were devised by adding roller skate wheels to wooden boxes. Over the following decades the boards became more sophisticated, as did the variety of manoeuvres that skaters attempted to carry out. From street skating – which uses the curbs, benches, and handrails found in built up areas – to specially devised skating parks, where a variety of ramps and half-pipes (U-shaped ramps) enable vert (a clipped form of vertical) skating, skaters have developed a wide repertoire of aerial tricks.
Ollies, nollies, and alley-oop
A rich lexicon has emerged to describe the variety of grinds and airs – street and aerial manoeuvres – that expert skaters perform. For instance, a jump executed by tapping the back, or tail, of the board causing it to rebound off the ground is known as an ollie after Alan ‘Ollie’ Gelfand who invented it in 1976; tapping the front, or nose, of the board instead is known as a nollie.
There are a number of types of manoeuvres in which the board is manipulated during flight – including the heel flip, kick flip, foot plant, and hand plant, the last two of which are known as stalls: a momentary stop in movement, usually at the end of a vert ascension. Spinning the board in a 180-degree turn is known as a shove-it (using the back foot to push the tail end of the board away from the body, causing it to rotate in the air). If the board spins in the same direction to the skateboarder’s body but in the opposite direction to that which they are facing, this is an alley-oop, from the French allez (the imperative form of the verb aller ‘to go’). Alley-oop has been used for around a century as an exclamation in the manner of ‘get up!’ or ‘go on!’, used to encourage or draw attention to the performance of an acrobatic or other physical feat, especially one involving a leap or lift upwards. More recently – though before it entered the lexicon of skateboarding – alley-oop was also used in basketball in relation to a high pass near the basket that is received above the rim and dunked or tipped in to score.
Fakie and goofyfoot
Skating backwards is termed a fakie; skating with the right foot placed ahead of the left is known as skating goofyfoot or goofy – recalling how the term cack-handed, used to describe someone who is left-handed, can also mean ‘clumsy’ or ‘awkward’. The tendency to see right-handedness as the default is apparent from the history of dexterous ‘skilful’, whose origins lie in Latin dexter ‘right’; by contrast the Latin word for left, sinister, has developed all kinds of sinister associations.
The placement of your feet also dictates the direction you’ll go in a frontside manoeuvre: this is done anticlockwise for a regular rider and clockwise for a goofy rider, while the opposite is true of a backside manoeuvre.
Borrowing from skiing and surfing
Other words used by skateboarders were borrowed from the language of skiing; these include slalom (from Norwegian sla ‘sloping’ + låm ‘track’), used to describe a course that zig-zags between obstacles, and wedeln, from a German word meaning to wag the tail, describing a series of short parallel turns. If any of these attempts should go wrong so that falling off seems inevitable, you may be wise to bail out. This was originally a surfing term used to describe diving off a surfboard to avoid injury; the origin of the phrase probably lies in the use of bail to refer to the removal of water from a boat.
Sick, rad, and goblin
Like many sports skateboarding has its own slang terms, some of which have acquired wider currency. Perhaps the best known is the skater use of sick to mean ‘cool’; this may seem a bizarre development but is paralleled by other slang uses that reverse a word’s sense in standard English, such as wicked and bad. Also more widely used is rad – a clipped form of radical – which originated in skateboarding to describe a particularly challenging or risky manoeuvre, but is now more widely used to describe anything considered fashionable or cool.
Some skating slang reflects the sport’s origins in surf culture, such as gremlin – used to refer to a poor or inexperienced skateboarder. The origins of this word are uncertain; it is probably derived from goblin, originally a French word describing a mischievous demon, although other suggestions include a borrowing of the Irish word gruaimín ‘gloomy little person’, or Dutch gremmelen ‘to stain, spoil’.
If this brief introduction has got you stoked (skater slang for ‘excited’) and you are off to give it a try, take care that in your enthusiasm to be taken for an expert you don’t describe your skateboard as your wood, deck, or ride, or refer to your fellow skaters as boarders, since these terms will mark you out as a poser – someone who pretends to be a true skateboarder, but isn’t.