The Meaning Of Gnarly in Surfing: History, Definition & Uses

The Grom Life is an independent publisher. You will not find paid product promotions or sponsored content on this site. You will find affiliate links which means we may earn a commission if you purchase through these links.

The word “Gnarly” is one of the most commonly used slang expressions in the surfing community.

You will “gnarly” spoken by surfers after something surprising and amazing happens, but it can also have negative connotations.

Gnarly can mean more than one thing, as you can see, which adds more mystery and confusion to the surfing vocabulary.

Early Gnarly Etymology

Like many slang words, its origins and its uses are far from straightforward!

Gnarly comes from the word “gnarl”, which means to twist or mangle something, and the word “gnarled”, which refers to something twisted.

Gnarled is thought to come from the Middle English word “knar”, which referred to the knots or knobs on a tree.

Pronounced “gnar”, this word had transformed into “gnarled” by the Elizabethan age and was used by Shakespeare in this context.

Shakespeare is responsible for introducing a lot of words into English.

Contrary to what many believe, the majority of “new” words were likely already in circulation and he was just the first to put them into a widely published text.

However, he definitely created a lot of words himself and would often expand upon existing words so that the audience would have context.

Imagine, for instance, that you hear the word “pretzeled” being described in relation to a piece of rope or even someone’s body.

You might not have heard the word before (although it is in the dictionary), but it’s not much of a leap for you to determine its meaning.

Gnarly in the Surfing Community

Sometime during the middle of the 20th century, gnarly become part of the surfing and skateboarding lexicon.

It’s often said to have originated in California, where its usage was a common part of local teen slang.

Legend has it that the twisted branches and trunks of the Monterey Cypress and Torrey Pine trees inspired its usage, but that part of the word’s origin story has been lost to time.

Although it’s ubiquitous among Californian surfers, the word is now common in English-speaking countries all over the world and can be found throughout the skateboard community as well.

What Does Gnarly Mean?

The English language can be confusing, especially when the same word could mean 2 things of the exact opposite nature, like gnarly.

Does Gnarly Mean Good? Yes!

If we ignore the literal definition of “gnarly”, some of the synonyms include “cool” and even “nasty”.

It’s often used to describe something that is great but unexpected. On the water, it’s used to denote big waves and rides.

Does Gnarly Mean Bad? Yes, Again!

In a negative context, gnarly can refer to something that is difficult, gross, or challenging, such as a dangerous wave or a painful wipeout. In this sense, it carries similar meanings as words like “sick”.

If you are “sick”, it’s generally a bad thing, and something that refers to a physical illness or a mental perversion.

But if something that you do is “sick”, and the words are coming from a fellow surfer (as opposed to a psychologist…) then the meaning is usually positive.