Watch Surfers and Valley Girls Explain the Latest Slang in This 1980s Documentary

A Blog About Language
Dec. 3 2013 12:01 PM

Watch Surfers and Valley Girls Explain the Latest Slang in This 1980s Documentary

A version of this post originally appeared in The Week.

1386088531
"This Walkman is bitchin'!"

Catherine Karnow/Corbis

Slang has to start somewhere. And according to The Story of English—a late '80s PBS documentary hosted by Robert MacNeil—the kids were picking it up from California, that "breeding ground for every new kind of lifestyle, every fresh form of religious practice or cult of self-improvement, the state that thrives on defense contracts and flower children." More specifically though, they were getting it from the surfers, the most California subculture of them all.

Advertisement

After a clip of the band the Surf Punks "cranking on some radical tunes," the band members sit down and hang for a little beach interview about the latest terms, including the still current "tight bod," the dated but familiar "gnarly," and the weirdly obscure "hairball!"

The terms ultimately moved from the beach to the mall, and with the help of Moon Unit Zappa and her song "Valley Girl," to the rest of the country. Watch the most adorable mall teens imaginable explain classics like "bag your face," "tubular," "bitchin’," and "to the max."

At the end, the late New York Times language columnist William Safire calls "Valley Girlese" a "happy passing fancy," like streakers ("What ever happened to streakers?"). However, we see from the earnest explanations of words like "totally" and "awesome," which need no explanation today, that some aspects of Valley Girlese have had a much longer than anticipated shelf life.

As it happens, the most '80s moment in the clip is not related to language at all. Get your true nostalgia fix at 0:25, as you marvel at the Surf Punks, all holding up their wrists to show off their totally rad watches.

More from The Week:

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.