Where do the classic outdoor terms like ‘gnarly’ and ‘stoked’ really come from?
words :: Drew Wayland
The outdoor and mountain sports communities are brimming with colourful and descriptive terms unique to the adventure lifestyle. If you’ve spent any time on a trail, a ski slope, a raft or a climbing wall, you’ve probably heard your fair share of slang thrown around. But where do these words come from?
Many of our favourite phrases first appeared in small groups within specific communities, like the early Yosemite big wall climbers, and over time made their way into the outdoor lexicon. Others pre-date the existence of an adventure sports scene in North America and were adopted by athletes and adventurers who spread them to mountain ranges around the world.
Even words considered so commonplace that we can’t imagine life without them (see: ‘awesome’) got their start somewhere. There are dozens of words that have passed in and out of the shared language of the outdoors, but here are a few of the most important.
By no means exclusive to the outdoors, ‘awesome’ sports a long history that has very little to do with its modern definition. For most of its life, between the end of the 16th century and the end of World War II, ‘awesome’ was a descriptor, of course, of something that filled one with awe. It’s use in the Bible to describe angelic visions cemented it as an important English word, but in the mid-20th century, it underwent a rapid shift toward meaning “very impressive.”
The change was considered a confusing fad at the time, and even as late as 1977 a California woman named Lynne Bronstein wrote to the Los Angeles Times asking “Has anyone besides myself noticed the current rage for the term ‘awesome’?” Bronstein lamented that “now everything is ‘awesome,’” and asked the Times “aren’t we overdoing it a little?”
There’s something about a perfectly cresting wave that really does fill one with awe, and the sun-bleached beach bums of the sixties and seventies knew it better than anyone.
‘Awesome’ is so widespread that it’s impossible to pinpoint its entry into mainstream outdoor lingo, but like many of these phrases, California surfing culture was probably the incubator for its popularity in the realm of outdoor sports. There’s something about a perfectly cresting wave that really does fill one with awe, and the sun-bleached beach bums of the sixties and seventies knew it better than anyone.
The art of the send first appeared in rock climbing communities in the 1990s. Possibly deriving from the concept of sending in relation to delivering, as in delivering on a promise, the term refers to an instance in which a climber completes the route without resting or falling.
‘The send’ spread quickly to the snowboarding, skiing, mountain biking and skateboarding worlds, where ‘sending it’ and ‘full send’ are common phrases used to describe a perfect run.
The term went viral in 2017 when a Canadian stuntman nicknamed Larry Enticer recorded and uploaded a snowmobile stunt he began by telling the audience that despite the dark and snowy conditions, he was, “still gonna send it.” Enticer proceeded to wipe out in spectacular fashion, a common casualty of sending it that we’re all too familiar with.
Until the 1960s, ‘gnarly’ was just a less common form of the word ‘gnarled,’ which is still used to describe things with many twists and knots, like the gnarled branches of a tree. It was, of course, the California surfers who gave the word life. A truly gnarly wave was big, fast and dangerous, and most importantly, it was ugly. Gnarly may be a term of endearment, but traditionally something gnarly should be just a little bit repulsive.
These days, the term has evolved to simply mean ‘excellent’ in some circles, while in others it still retains a little bit of the original connotation of respectful disgust.
‘The gnar,’ particularly the shredding of it, started to appear in skateboarding communities during the Tony Hawk era of the 1990s and 2000s. Today, one would be hard pressed to find a skatepark where the word isn’t uttered a few times an hour. A plethora of ‘90s movies cashing in on teenage slang probably didn’t hurt either.
This one has a history that runs deeper than mountain sports. For most of its life, of course, sick was synonymous with illness and malady. But in the last century or so, it has become a word with positive connotations for different groups at different moments in time.
In the Southern US in the 1890s, a strong dialect of English spoken by Black Americans (today known as African American Vernacular English, AAVE) had developed alongside the English spoken by white Americans with its own unique slang and grammatical structure.
It was around the turn of the century that black Americans started to use the words ‘bad’ and ‘sick’ as slang for their opposites. It’s theorized that this was originally coded language used to feign compliance with the system of segregation, but this was never recorded.
The enormous popularity of jazz in the 1920s and 1930s put the positive ‘sick’ in the national spotlight. It was a favorite musician’s term, and white socialites who listened to jazz picked it up around the same time. When the golden era of jazz ended, the word went dormant for a little while, before appearing again in the late 1980s skateboarding community. This particular iteration of ‘sick’ wasn’t entirely positive, it was indicative of something crazy or unusual.
“You’re sick in the head in the head for trying a move like that,” you might hear, but only ever with praise.
Steaze (sometimes spelled steez) is a portmanteau, or a mash-up of two English words: style and ease. To have steaze is to exhibit both of these characteristics at once, often exclaimed when an athlete is ‘making it look easy.’
The word itself goes back to the New York City hip hop scene of the 1990s. The first recorded use of ‘steez’ was by the rapper Method Man on the 1995 GZA album Liquid Swords. Just a few years later in 1998, the Brooklyn rap group Gang Starr sampled Method Man’s verse and made the hit “You Know My Steez.” The song topped North American hip hop charts and put ‘steez’ on the cultural map.
It isn’t clear when the word jumped from Brooklyn to the mountains of Canada, Colorado and California, but by the mid-2000s it was a favorite skiing and snowboarding catch phrase around the world. This is one of those words that wasn’t meant to describe an athletic action, but works so well that it was only a matter of time before it found its way to the slopes.
You can thank the surfers again, as they pioneered the use of the word ‘stoked’ to describe great excitement or anticipation. Originally the brand name of a type of fire poker, ‘to stoke’ became a verb in the late 17th century. Stoking a fire is still common enough, but the original usage has been dwarfed by the word’s introduction to the mountain culture.
This one is usually prefaced with a long and drawn out, “sooooooo.”
Short for ‘radical,’ this word seems to be a favorite for etymologists looking to study the development of slang. A number of research papers and dissertations have been written on this word, mostly because it follows the tried and true information highway that goes like this:
California surfers→ California youth (Valley Girl culture) → Hollywood entertainment → The global lexicon → Mountain sports
This is what some linguists call the most easily observable slang cycle in the world, because of how many phrases have become popular following this same path, and how big a boost the Hollywood effect has on a word’s ubiquity. We get ‘gnarly’ and ‘stoked’ through this pipeline, and ‘rad’ got its big boost through the ‘90s cartoon ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ featuring a squadron of laid back amphibious warriors who enjoyed eating pizza and skateboarding more than they ever wanted to fight crime.
It’s interesting to note, however, that the last link in the chain is scaling down from general use. It seems as though even when trends die out in the wider world, mountain sport communities still hold on. Maybe it’s because some words are just right for the mountains. Perhaps it’s because time just moves a little bit slower out there. Or maybe they’re just too much fun to say. —ML