• gnarly •
Pronunciation: nahr-lee • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Covered with gnarls or knurls, knurly, gnarled, knotty. 2. Twisted or deformed, rugged, time-worn. 3. (Surfing slang) Awesome, challenging, dangerous, as a gnarly surf. 4. (Slang) Awesome, excellent, attractive, cool, as a gnarly (excellent) trumpet player.
Notes: Today's Good Word is about as odd a character as we will find in the English lexicon. It is the adjective for the noun gnarl "twisted knot on a tree", but its meaning has exploded in recent decades, as we see above. Remember to write the initial G but forget it when you pronounce this word, just as we write the initial K on knurl, knot and know, but ignore it in speech.
In Play: It is difficult to pin down the meanings of this word, but most of them bear some resemblance to the original: the rugged, hard, twisted knots that sometimes grow on hardwood trees: "Carver Mupp spent his weekends searching the woods for gnarly trees that might produce an eye-catching pattern in one of his hand-turned bowls." However, as we saw in the Meaning above, the sense of today's word has wandered far from its beginnings: "Andy Bellam's gnarly hands were elegant expressions of the 82 years they had absorbed."
Word History: The noun underlying today's Good Word, gnarl, started out as a mispronunciation of knurl. Knurl became knarl became gnarl—not much of a journey. Knurl is an old Germanic word found in several Germanic languages, such as German Knorren "gnarl". But as Europeans spent less and less time in forests, this word almost slipped away from us. Surfers saved it from the dustbin of history by first referring to twisting waves of the surf as 'gnarly'. Since surfers look for gnarly surf, however, the word was soon taken to mean "awesome" at roughly the same time that this word became the going slang for "excellent". As a result we soon began hearing expressions like, "Dora is a gnarly typist." (Today we thank Ralph Mowry for his very gnarly suggestion of this word as a Good Word. )