Forget you, grammar scolds. It’s an utterance like “gnar-gnar”–which I heard my fiancée’s sister pull out of her ever playful idiolect for gnarly (that’s a compliment, Britt)–that makes me love language.
Because, in all its clipped and reduplicative glory, “gnar-gnar” spans an invisible bridge between Shakespeare and surfers.
And because it also gives me occasion to discuss hapax legomena.
In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, whose colorful cast includes such characters as Elbow, Froth, and Abhorson, Isabella, sister to Claudio, pleads with the austere Angelo to spare her brother from execution:
Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would never be quiet,
For every pelting petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder, nothing but thunder.
Though rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an agry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep, who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal. (2.2.113-126)
Besides acting as a searing sendup of the abuse of power, the passage (based on the authority of 1623’s First Folio) can claim Shakespeare’s one and only use of “gnarled.” Occurring exactly once in all of Shakespeare’s corpus, gnarled is thus a “hapax legomenon,” from the Greek for, roughly, “something said only once.”
The OED cites gnarled as a variant of knurled, and, referring to a tree, means “covered with protuberances; distorted, twisted; rugged, knotted.” Knurled is a protuberance, if you will, of knar, a Middle English word for a “knot in wood.” Earlier in the 13th century, a knar was a rock or a stone. According to Weekley:
Early German [variations] and [dialectical] forms with -s- and -r- point to [an ultimate] connection with [Middle High German] ‘knüsen,’ to strike, bang, and [Anglo-Saxon] ‘cnossian,’ to dash against.
Most sources write off the origin as obscure. But this single usage persevered, and took up life in the most unexpected of places: SoCal surfers.
Out here in Laguna Beach, where there is an active surf culture–something endlessly captivating to Midwestern stock like me–gnarly has some real currency, including in my own mouth.
Because, like so much good slang, it is useful.
Among surfers, a gnarly wave is, originally, a dangerous and difficult one to ride. If a surfer rips that wave, it would be some gnarly surfing indeed–superior, excellent, very good. If a surfer is axed by that wave, it could certainly be a gnarly wipeout–gross, disgusting, very bad.
Now, gnarly is mostly used like that catch-all cool. In our efforts to express our experiences, we tend towards exaggeration, but, with frequent use of our “gnarliest” words (cf. amazing, wonderful, fascinating), we weaken their meaning and impact. Ever heard someone who never swears drop an “f-bomb”? Yep, that will silence a room of sailors.
How do we get from a gnarled oak to a gnarly barrel?
Roger Callen–a surfer quoted in the delightful compendium of surfer lingo, Rippin H2O–claims the coinage (I’ve clarified a few parts for readability):
I was the creator of the word gnarly. I was taking metal shop in junior high school at Freemont Junior High School in Anaheim [in] about 1975. There is a tool for turning…on the lathe called a gnarl tool, it makes bumpy surfaces for grips on handles. I [really] liked the pattern it made. I was also surfing with my friends [a lot] from Huntington to San Diego with my friends. I started calling choppy waves gnarly, then all my friends started saying “That was gnarly,” then the word mutated…anyways that’s where the word gnarly comes from.
True to gnarled’s origin, Ripping H20 provides “knarley”as a variant. And contributors to the Riptionary, the “Surf Lingo Lexicon” I also recommend you dive into, offer some fun derivative forms: gnar (crazy); gnarmax (gnarly to the maximum); and gnarmin, the “lamer,” minimum counterpoint to the max, as I take it.
Shakespeare, Surfers, & Slang
Gnarly is a perfect example, I think, of why slang can be at once so successful and so spited. Slang words are load-bearing words. Gnarly can mean “excellent” and “disgusting,” and this doubleness, perhaps contrary to our expectations, makes it useful in everyday discourse. Where context, culture, identity, and relationships are all swirling around. And where ambiguity, novelty, and idiosyncrasies are tolerated, if not encouraged.
But slang’s usefulness can also result in overuse, compelling out-group speakers to see a term as a lack (of education, of variety) or limitation, as opposed to the “social glue” it is, an organic example of the linguistic creativity that bonds different speakers together.
Awesome experiences the same slangy doubleness and detestation. Once meaning “inspiring awe,” we’ve now transformed it into something less awe-inspiring and more quotidian. But, in spite of all the dander it raises on the peevish heads of schoolmarms, we need words like awesome. How else are we going to express approval or excitement so efficiently?
Of course, not all coinages are made equal. Compare Shakespeare’s eyeball to cronut. What will the life of the latter be? Could we have predicted the longevity of eyeball? And not everyone is as prolific and poetic as the bard. But is Callen’s gnarly any less creative than Shakespeare’s gnarled? How would we receive gnarly were it from Shakespeare’s pen? And how did Shakespeare’s audiences hear gnarled, for that matter?
Gnarled questions indeed.