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

Lexicon Valley
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:

Arika Okrent holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and a first-level certification in Klingon. She is the author of In the Land of Invented Languages.

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.