Do you partake in life-consuming outdoor hobbies or sports, complete with their own unique cultures, charmingly peculiar vocabularies, verbal signifiers of who’s part of the in crowd and who’s not? Can you move freely between the languages of each? I ask because I’ve spent the past decade spiraling deeply down the fly fishing rabbit hole. Surely fly fishing has a codified lingo, a jargon indecipherable to the outsider that immediately separates the relative newbs (me) from the long-timers (Ted, the fly shop dude). But if it does, I have yet to learn it.
When I walk into a fly shop, my vocabulary and way of speaking do not immediately devolve to sound like 11th-grade Jeff Spicoli. “Hey, dude, where’d you get those epic elk-hair caddises?” is not a thing I’ve ever said. But, as my wife likes to point out, that is exactly what happens when I, a lifelong surfer, stroll into a surf shop, flip flops slapping my heels.”Dude, you have any cruisy twin keel fin sets? I just got an epic, squirty little fish, gonna be so killer on little racy bowly ones.”
“Yeah, dude, super fun,” I, a 40-something man with a graduate degree, responded. “Some wedge-y little nuggets out here for sure.”
I hadn’t really thought much about this until I caught myself Spicoli-ing away in the surf the other day. A 40-something guy was paddling toward me just as I kicked out of a head-high runner. The lineup was full of glassy, crossed-up peaks, typical of a glorious late-summer/early fall day in Northern California. “Yew! That was a sick one,” the guy said to me as we both paddled for the horizon. “Yeah, dude, super fun,” I, a 40-something man with a graduate degree, responded. “Some wedge-y little nugs out here for sure.”
I didn’t know this man, had never seen him before in my life. And yet: wedge-y little nugs? We were two grown men talking like 12-year-olds. “Shit,” I thought. “My wife was right.”
When I got out of the water and walked back to my truck, I noticed that my new buddy was toweling off a few cars over. He was driving a very new and very nice Audi SUV with a sticker advertising a snooty private high school in Marin County where he must send his kids. Presumably, he was a very good-job-having dude. And even he had begun a conversation with a stranger with the term “yew!”
What does it all mean? Why are so many members of the outdoor community, surfers especially, so quick to lapse into only slightly more articulate versions of the “so pitted” guy from YouTube?
The reason lots of us do probably has something to do with “groupspeak.” Academics use the term to describe the weird lingo of members of little subcultures. Jargon is part of it, but groupspeak is also the tone and mannerisms of the way a group talks.
I asked Dr. Matt Warshaw, chair of the history department at Encyclopedia of Surfing University, about groupspeak within the surf community and why our version often has us sounding like total rubes. Are we dumbing ourselves down when we drop terms like “sick,” “yew” or “bowly ones” into casual parking-lot or surf-shop counter talk?
“I don’t think of it as dumbing down,” says Warshaw. “It’s nice. It’s polite. Without trying or thinking about it, you’re looking for the easiest way to communicate. It’s connecting with another person any way you can, at any level you can, on whatever subject you have in common at the moment: the weather, your last session, the other guy’s last session. Maybe at some point you bump it up a level — probably not. But you start somewhere. Maybe the transcript of your conversation is boring as hell, but that’s not the point. The surfer in you has bowed to the surfer in the other guy or girl.”
And that lovely, nonjudgmental response is about as perfect a description of groupspeak as any sociologist could come up with. Just a couple of skiers, surfers, or mountain bikers speaking the same silly language, because though we may not know anything else about each other’s background, we know we’ll connect in our shared language at least, even if none of that is a conscious decision. It’s a nice little moment.
There’s another little sociological element at play in a “Dude, looks sick” exchange between two grown adults in the middle of the day: code-switching. The sketch show “Key & Peele” was practically built on the concept — people with one foot in two different cultural worlds switching from one language to another based on whatever social situation they’re in, mostly in order to fit in or to show they belong.
I don’t talk like Spicoli when I go to the bank or meet my wife’s colleagues or enter some other normal adult situation in my life. But the moment I meet another surfer or mountain biker? Boom, the “sicks” and “epics” come flying. Part of it is the bowing to the surfer/cyclist in the other guy or girl, just as Warshaw said, but another part of it is not wanting to seem like an outsider, to let other surfers and riders around us know that yeah, we’re cool. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to figure out how to bow to the other fly-fisherman. Can’t have fly shop Ted thinking I’m a kook, or whatever the heck a fly-fisherman would call it.