Matt Warshaw: Literally A Walking Surf Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary taps MW as its authority for all things surf

The Oxford English Dictionary's new surf consultant, Matt Warshaw. Photo: Divine

The Oxford English Dictionary’s new surf consultant, Matt Warshaw. Photo: Divine

Surf nerds everywhere, rejoice: Former SURFER Editor, Matt Warshaw — the brains (and brawn) behind The History of Surfing, and the excellent and ever-expanding Encyclopedia of Surfing — has been tapped by none other than The Oxford English Dictionary as their new consultant on all things surf.

For those of you without your literary fingers firmly on the lexicographical and linguistic pulse, the OED is the world's "most comprehensive dictionary” of, and the ultimate descriptive resource for, the living organism that is the English Language. Since 1895, the OED has carefully chronicled the nuanced shifts and shimmies in English usage, spelling, and grammar, and now they can call on perhaps surfing's most celebrated chronicler — a man who has published hundreds of thousands of words on the subject, and who's done so with a handsome, hardbound volume of the OED close at hand.

We chatted with Mr. Warshaw about his new position with The Oxford English Dictionary at his Surf Consultant's desk in Seattle.

SURFER: Are you a good speller?

MW: I'm a better speller than my son.

Your boy is six?

Six and three-quarters.

How about your wife?

She's 40-something.

No, can you spell better than her?

God, no. Jodi won the big school spelling bee as a 4th grader. Chewed 'em all up, big kids included. She gets drunk, she'll reenact the final showdown, her against a 6th-grade boy. Kid left the stage crying.

Can you explain exactly what it means to be The Oxford English Dictionary Surf Consultant?

They just want the thing to be a little more surfy. Someone got in touch with me early in the year and asked if I'd check their definition of "tandem surfing," and see if I could find an early printed reference. That's the big thing with OED — they want a quote from as far back as possible. So I checked the definition, which was fine, and found them a Tom Blake quote about tandem surfing from 1935, I think it was, and one thing led to another, and they offered me the consultant job. They're sending me something like 80 words to look over in the next few weeks.

Warshaw doing some immersive descriptivist research on one of our favorite surfy terms to date: "Pitted." So pitted.  Photo: Divine

Warshaw doing some immersive descriptivist research on one of our favorite surfy terms to-date: “Pitted.” So pitted. Photo: Divine

For money?

Peanuts. Always is. But a truly big honor. I would've done it for free.

And what power! A huge victory for surfers/Scrabble players everywhere. Do you get to contribute words, too?

No. I'm happy to just do their bidding. With the encyclopedia, I'm already lugging around a one-ton nerd load. I can't also be the guy who…what's that word for when you organize words and shit?

"Lexicographer"?

No. Or wait. Maybe. Yeah, is that the word?

You tell me!

I'll look it up later.

You're a busy wordsmith, updating the Encyclopedia of Surfing's entries, blogs, and videos, contributing here at SURFER regularly. How often do you crack that two-volume OED of yours?

Not that often, because now I just automatically look stuff up online, like everybody else. But I've had the same OED on my desk now since the early-1990s. The N-Z volume is maybe 10 inches from my right hand as I speak. It's always there, ready to serve, when I'm not satisfied with what I find online. Ten years ago, I had a whole shelf of reference books, all of which I threw away as things went online. OED is the only survivor.