The Unlikely Origins of Outdoor Slang
Ever wonder where terms like "gnarly" and "steazy" come from? So did we.
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In the parlance of our outdoor times, words sometimes take on meanings very different from their original intent. For instance, you may refer to your climbing/skiing/mountain biking friends as “dude,” a word that originally referred to men who cared more than an average amount about their appearance. It started with, believe it or not, Yankee Doodle Dandy, then was adopted by cowboys and dude ranches, then surfers, and now everyone else.
The adventure lexicon is full of words like that, whether they originated in the 1800s or in the minds of the Wu-Tang Clan. Here are 10 important ones:
Gnarly has been around since at least the 1800s, a form of “gnarled,” meaning knotty—gnarled hands, gnarled tree branches, et cetera. Surfers started using it in the 1960s, describing dangerous waves. From there, it’s spread to other sports, spawning the terms “the gnar” and “shred the gnar,” used in skateboarding, skiing, and snowboarding, to describe the act of performing well on tough terrain, waves, or features. It later inspired Robb Gaffney and Shane McConkey’s G.N.A.R. (Gaffney’s Numerical Assessment of Radness) Points scale, which assigned points to skiers doing rad things (like skiing naked) and subtracted points for un-rad things (like getting your ski pass revoked for skiing naked) to decide who the raddest skier on the mountain was.
Originally used by rock climbers to describe a perfect crack in rock, use of the word “splitter” widened sometime in the mid-2000s to include other things of high quality—non-uniform cracks that are fun to climb, and strangely, good weather.
A rock climbing term used beginning in the late 1990s to describe climbing a route without falling or resting on the rope, “send” has jumped genres to mountain biking, and now skiing, describing the act of a clean run, i.e. “Send it,” or “She sent it.”
A surfing term describing when a surfer gets barreled, or rides the hollow center of a breaking wave. Made virally famous (but not invented) by Micah Peasley, the surfer who was interviewed in 2002 on a morning news show in a clip that later went viral, forever dubbing Peasley the “So Pitted Guy.” As Peasley so eloquently put, “Oh, brah, it's just like … dude, you get the best barrels ever, dude. It's just like, you pull in and you just get spit right out 'em. You just drop in, smack the lip … waapah! Drop down … swoopah! And then after that you just drop in, ride the barrel and get pitted, so pitted, like that.”
Use of the word “bonk” to describe the bottoming out of blood sugar levels dates back to the 1950s, when it appeared in a British film warning cyclists to eat when they pedaled or else. To get scientific, bonking is what happens when an athlete has completely depleted the glycogen stores in the muscles and liver. Alternately, “bonk” is a terrain park move for skiers and snowboarders, which basically means to bounce off an object.
A gaper is, to be succinct, a beginner skier or snowboarder who is unfamiliar with the customs and behavior of the ski/snowboard world. The word “gaper” has been around since at least the late 1990s, used to describe the forehead gap between a beginner’s goggles and their helmet—the gaper gap.
No one knows who exactly first said it, but pioneering boulderer John Gill claimed to have heard Yvon Chouinard using the term “dirtbag climbers” in the late 1950s. Most climbers would point to the Yosemite climbers of the 1960s as the original dirtbags—those who chose poverty and climbing over the “real world,” and famously lived off pennies a day (and at least once off cat food) just so they could stay climbing in the Valley.
The word “steez” has been around since at least 1995, when Method Man dropped it into a verse on GZA’s classic Liquid Swords album. That lyric was sampled in 1998 on the even more classic Gang Starr track “You Know My Steez.” At some point after that, the term “steez” (or “steaz” or “steaze” or “steeze,” adverb “steazy” or “steezy”), was a) adopted by skiers and snowboarders to describe a combination of style and ease and b) became the brand name of a company that produces green tea-based beverages.
Stoke is another word that’s been around since the late 17th century, when it was used to describe the act of poking a fire to get it going. Climbers, skiers, and other outdoor folk have been using it to describe being excited about something for at least a decade, but they were far from first—California surfers have been saying “stoked” since the 1950s.
The outdoor meaning of the term “sandbag” comes from the act of grading a rock climb easier than it actually is. Meaning: you typically find 5.8 routes challenging, so you pick out a 5.8 route to try, and find it much, much harder than other 5.8 routes you’ve climbed—maybe closer to 5.10. You'd feel as if you had climbed the 5.8 with a sandbag tied to you. Why would someone grade a route easier than it is? There’s no single motive.
Sometimes the person who originally graded the route isn’t sure of their rating, or they don’t want to be accused of giving it a “soft” rating. Sometimes people get a sick pleasure at the thought or sight of others suffering. Sometimes life isn’t fair. Whatever the reason, the term has gone from an adjective (a “sandbagged route”) to a verb: you can sandbag your friend by talking him/her into leading a climbing route that’s way beyond their experience by saying things like “you got this” or “you’ll be fine.” The act of sandbagging, is, of course, not exclusive to rock climbing. My girlfriend has sandbagged me on mountain bike rides, friends have sandbagged me on ski objectives, hell, a waitress at my favorite Thai place in Denver is constantly sandbagging me on how hot the “medium” spice level is on the Drunken Noodles.