Surfing Terminology and Slang: You Can’t Play BINGO Without the Lingo

Stephen Mullaney

September 20, 2020

Seems most every human-powered outdoor recreation activity has a language of its own. And the more popular that activity becomes, the more expansive the list of slang words and new terminology become. It’s a way of communicating efficiently with your fellow enthusiasts, and let’s face it, speaking the language makes your part of the group.

In this next series of posts here on the NCOAE Blog, we’re going to explore the unique spoken word of our beloved adventure-based sports. We’ll start off with surfing, the “Sport of Kings,” this week, then move on to climbing and paddling in future posts.

And now, without further ado, let’s go ahead and push through the shorebreak, paddle out to the lineup and grab us up some gnarly waves.

Sorry. One more aside before we begin. Let’s go ahead and elaborate on that “Sport of Kings” comment above:

Back when missionaries arrived on the Hawaiian Islands, they quickly banished the sport of surfing, calling it hedonistic and probably too much fun. They also gifted the Hawaiian population with a variety of diseases, but that’s another story. However, when King Kalakaua was installed on the throne in 1872, one of his first acts was to reinstate this ocean-specific human-powered activity that was so loved by his royal predecessors. And once again, surfing became the “sport of kings” and commoners alike.

Since then, surfing has become among the most romanticized sports in the world. Films like The Endless Summer, Point Break, Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii and even the Gidget television series drew thousands of young people into the ocean and onto waves across the coastlines of America — and around the world. And most recently, as you’ll see in the video below, Maya Gabeira — a Brazilian surfer who makes it her mission to tackle big, big waves — recently broke the Guinness World Record for the Largest Wave conquered by of woman!

Again, sorry. One final diversion and then we’ll get to those surfing terms:

Lee Clow, the advertising icon who worked directly with Steve Jobs on classic Apple television ads and futuristic consumer trends, brought the culture of local surf shops into Apple’s megastores around the world. Instant success. This California ad genius — himself a veteran wave rider — knew all about the bond between a surfer and a surf shop.

For instance, he knew that surfers find any reason at all to visit a surf shop. Even when they’re broke. It’s where they hang out, hear about the trends in surfboard design, get the insider track on new surf spots or what’s breaking. You feel part of a family, and you speak the same lingo. Yep, Apple took Lee Clow’s sales pitch to heart and the rest is history.

No more asides. No more fun facts. Let’s talk surfing terminology:

The Surfboard

Deck: This is the part of the surfboard you wax before entering the water and the surface upon which you stand.

Bottom: This one’s easy. This is the bottom of the surfboard. It’s also the bottom of a wave, which is often where a surfer begins to make his turn or “cut.”

Rails: That’s the sides of the board, where your hands go when getting ready to “pop up.” (We’ll get to that later).

Nose: The front tip of the surfboard. On a boat, you’d call that the bow.

Tail: You got it —the back end of the board!  Did you look at your dog or cat?

Board Types and Styles

Shortboards: Shorter than the longboards (Duh!), these sleek surfboards are usually under seven feet in length with a sharper nose, thinner rails, and a narrower tail. They’re generally faster and better for tackling more powerful waves.

Longboards: These are the OG of surfboards (think of those old ‘60s surf films). Longboards are not as maneuverable as a shortboard but are much more  stable and an excellent vehicle for learning how to surf. They’re usually nine feet long and longer.

Gun: This is a giant surfboard used specifically to ride gnarly gigantic waves. Think Waimea Bay, Jaws, and the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii; the Cortes Bank and Mavericks in California; Shipsterns Bluff in Tasmania; and Teahupo’o in Tahiti. Great skill and moxie are the mere minimum requirements here.

Funboards, fishes, retros, planing and displacement boards: And this list is growing every day. If mention of these boards come up in a party conversation, you’re okay to just nod or say, “Exactly what I thought.”

Where to Surf

Break: This is the area of the beach where you look out and see people surfing. Literally, it’s where the waves are good enough to ride.

Secret spot: Don’t worry, no one’s going to tell you where it is anyway.

Mysto spot: Amazing, probably secret spot. You’re not going there anytime soon.

The Wave Itself

The peak: This is the tallest part of the wave. You want to be there when you take off!

Shoulder: This area of the wave is further down the line from the peak, and surfers who take off in this area are usually less experienced and a nuisance to someone who is already riding the wave. These novices are called “shoulder hoppers.” Don’t be one.

Barrel: (AKA, the tube or green room). This is where the surfer is actually riding inside the breaking wave, which remains one of the most amazing surf experiences.

Sweet spot: The very best, very fastest part of the wave. This description is typically up to the interpretation of the storyteller.

How We Surf

Charging: An aggressive, maybe fearless, surfer. Let someone else say you charge. Don’t define yourself as a charger.

Glide: A relaxed surfer, not making a whole lot of fancy moves, just following what the wave gives them.

Style: Looks good, not herky-jerky, not boring. Timeless, relaxed in scary situations (look up Gerry Lopez).

Helpful Terms for Engaging in Conversations with Surfers

Caught inside: This is when you find yourself stuck between the beach and the breaking waves beyond all the whitewater. It’s not a good place to be.

Clean wave:  This is a smooth wave — glassy because it’s smooth as glass and generally provides a bump-free ride.

Closeout: A wave that folds in half all at once. You do not want to paddle into a closeout wave.

Dawn patrol: Those who insist on going surfing first thing in the morning to avoid crowds and enjoy relative solitude.

Ding: Any damage done to your surfboard. Never, ever ding someone’s board.

Heavy: Huge waves that are sometimes dangerous. Let someone else say you surf heavy waves. If you say it, you might be forced to prove it!

Leash: Think, walking the dog. It connects your ankle and your surfboard, so you do not separate in the water and have to go swim for it.

Line up: The area in the water, away from the swell, where the surfers wait to get their turn at catching a wave.

Again, learning all this terminology will not make you a better surfer. Being consistent in the water and observing your peers will do that. But even if you never pick up a surfboard — be it a longboard, shortboard or gun — you’ll be able to sit on the line up of a conversation, use some gnarly terms, and avoid being closed out of the fun.

Check back soon for Part 2 in this series, where we cover the language of mountain climbing. Belay on!

About the Author: Stephen Mullaney is the Director of School Partnerships at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE). He has worked domestically and internationally with schools, organizations, and wilderness programs. His classrooms have ranged from dilapidated trailers at overcrowded, underfunded schools to the Himalayan mountains and everything imaginable in between. His past students include gang members/prisoners, education majors, college and university professors, and pioneers in the field out outdoor and adventure-based experiential education. Stephen’s philosophy is to focus on the development of positive working and learning environments. He brings more than a quarter of a century of education experience and understanding of human nature to any organization, whether it is an education institution or a private company. His writing has appeared in adventure sports/education journals, magazines and on the web. Stephen prefers to arrive by bicycle and sit in the dirt.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Have any further questions about our courses, what you’ll learn, or what else to expect? Contact us, we’re here to help!