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Wednesday, October 17, 2007   10:57 AM

I can't speak to the accuracy of the skater slang in Skate, but the word gnarly proved to be even more interesting than I suspected.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word gnarled initially appeared only in Shakespeare ("Merciful heaven! / Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt / Split'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak / Than the soft myrtle"), likely as a variant spelling of the earlier knarled.

Which is not quite obsolete nowadays. Editors could conceivably find themselves replacing an intentional use of the original spelling with what was once a non-standard spelling variant. Following common usage here is the obvious choice — too many people would think knarled was an error, not that language is a democracy oh-no — but if you care about "correctness" you should feel a bit conflicted. Along similar lines, I used to wonder what I would do if someone wrote curry Fauvel instead of curry favor.

(Obviously: remove the reference to an obscure poem from 1310. I'm here to represent the readers, after all.)

Both gnarled and knarled meant something like "knotty or misshapen."

So Shakespeare's gnarled goes unnoticed until the 19th century, when the poets of the day bring it back into currency. It's around that same time that people start using the backformation gnarl, meaning either "a protruding knot on a tree" or "to contort, twist."

A decade or so later they then make a new adjective, gnarly, out of that word. So gnarly goes back way back to 1829.

In the 1970s, surfers started using gnarly to describe dangerous waves (presumably they were quite twisty?), and by the 1980s it had been adopted into teen slang as a word for both "excellent" and "disgusting."

It's the "excellent" sense that seems to have won out. Although my guess is that, with the possible exception of some speakers on the West Coast, gnarly is used by most people today with at least a twist of irony.

(Bonus videogame tie-in: in Super Mario World, each level in the secret Special Zone took its name from surfer slang. In order: Gnarly, Tubular, Way Cool, Awesome, Groovy, Mondo, Outrageous, and Funky. It felt like I spent weeks trying to beat Tubular.)

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