Illustration: Jean Jullien
Illustration: Jean Jullien

Surfspeak

Why do we talk like surfers, anyway?

Do you have other interests besides surfing? Other life-consuming hobbies or sports, complete with their own unique cultures, charmingly peculiar vocabularies, verbal signifiers of who's part of the in crowd and who's not? Can you move freely between the languages of surf and your other interests? I ask because I've spent the past few years spiraling deeply down the fly-fishing rabbit hole. Surely fly-fishing has a codified lingo, a jargon indecipherable to the outsider that immediately separates the newbs (me) from the long-timers (Ted, the fly-shop dude). But if it does, I have yet to learn it. When I walk into a fly-shop (which, by the way, does not feel all that different from a surf shop — neoprene-footed waders even give the place a rubbery, surf-shop odor), my vocabulary and way of speaking do not immediately devolve to sound like 11th-grade Jeff Spicoli. "Hey, dude, where'd you get those epic elk-hair caddises?" is not a thing I've ever said. But, as my wife likes to point out, that is exactly what happens when I stroll into a surf shop, flipflops slapping my heels.

I hadn't really thought much about this until I caught myself Spicoli-ing away in the lineup the other day. A 40-something guy was paddling toward me just as I kicked out of a head-high runner. The surf zone was full of glassy, crossed-up peaks, typical of a glorious late-summer/early fall day in Northern California. "Yew! That was a sick one," the guy said to me as we both paddled for the horizon. "Ya, dude, super fun," I responded. "Some wedge-y little nugs out here for sure."

I didn't know this man, had never seen him before in my life. And yet: wedge-y little nugs? We were two grown men talking like Strider in the …Lost movies. "Shit," I thought. "My wife was right." When I got out of the water and walked back to my truck, I noticed that my new buddy was toweling off a few cars over. I'm just a regular schlub slacking off in the middle of the day from a job writing about surfing, so it makes at least a little bit of sense I'd pepper my speech with words like "nugs," but he was driving a very new and very nice Audi SUV with a sticker advertising a snooty private high school where he must send his kids. Presumably, he was a very good-job-having dude. And even he began a conversation with a stranger with the term "yew."

What does it all mean? Why are so many members of the surf community so quick to lapse into only slightly more articulate versions of the "so pitted" guy from YouTube?

When you think about it, there aren't any obvious reasons why surfers would tend toward infantilizing their language around each other. But we do (or maybe you don't, and that's fine and I'm very impressed, but at least a whole lot of us do). And the reason we do probably has something to do with "groupspeak." Academics use the term to describe the weird lingo of members of little subcultures. Jargon is part of it, but groupspeak is also the tone and mannerisms of the way a group talks.

I asked Dr. Matt Warshaw, chair of the history department at Encyclopedia of Surfing University, about groupspeak within the surf community and why our version often has us sounding like total rubes. Are we dumbing ourselves down when we drop terms like "sick," "yew" or "bowly ones" into casual parking-lot or surf-shop counter talk?

"I don't think of it as dumbing down," says Warshaw. "It's nice. It's polite. Without trying or thinking about it, you're looking for the easiest way to communicate. It's connecting with another person any way you can, at any level you can, on whatever subject you have in common at the moment: the weather, your last session, the other guy's last session. Maybe at some point you bump it up a level — probably not. But you start somewhere. Maybe the transcript of your conversation is boring as hell, but that's not the point. The surfer in you has bowed to the surfer in the other guy or girl."

And that lovely, nonjudgmental response is about as perfect a description of groupspeak as any sociologist could come up with. Just a couple of surfers speaking the same surfy language, because though we may not know anything else about each other's background, we know we'll connect in our shared surf language at least, even if none of that is a conscious decision. It's a nice little moment.

There's another little sociological element at play in a "Dude, looks sick" exchange between two grown men in the middle of the day: code-switching. The sketch show "Key & Peele" was practically built on the concept — people with one foot in two different cultural worlds switching from one language to another based on whatever social situation they're in, mostly in order to fit in or to show they belong.

I don't talk like Spicoli when I go to the bank or meet my wife's boss or enter some other normal adult situation in my life. But the moment I meet another surfer?Boom, the "sicks" and "epics" come flying. Part of it is the bowing to the surfer in the other guy or girl, just as Warshaw said, but another part of it is not wanting to seem like an outsider, to let other surfers around us know that yeah, dude, we're cool. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to figure out how to bow to the other fly-fisherman. Can't have fly-shop Ted thinking I'm a kook, or whatever the hell a fly-fisherman would call it.