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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

channel surfing

(early 1990’s | journalese? | “flipping (through the) channels”)

A strange expression all around. Dictionaries agree that the origin of “surf” is murky, possibly from an Indic language, or maybe a corruption of “sough” (as in the sough of the wind through the trees). Most mid-twentieth century dictionaries listed “bathe in the surf” as a definition for the verb, but to anyone of my generation such a use would seem odd. You could surf without a board — “body surfing” — but “surfing” by my childhood always meant riding a wave, not splashing around. As a sport, it seems to have entered U.S. folklore in the 1960’s, although it wasn’t new then. Twenty years later, a new expression, “channel surfing,” emerged with remarkable speed. Most on-line sources record the first use in 1986. It started to appear in quantity in the early 1990’s, and by 1995 it was current, common, and already mutating into “surfing the internet” (first use: 1992), which became “web surfing” soon after. These probably remain the most common phrases to employ this startling new use of the word “surfing.” Here’s a good account of the progress of “surfing” since 1990 or so. It sure came in fast; even at its inception, the term was generally used without a cautionary definition. Aside from “web surfing,” it has spawned other descendants, a recent example being couch surfing. (“Graze” has developed a similar meaning, but usually with regard to food, as a buffet. Further, like surfing, it conveys a sense of superficial contact.) “Crowd surfing” is much more literal.

Looking around LexisNexis and Google Books in the 1980’s, I found one or two examples of “surfing” used to mean “catch a wave,” or be on the leading edge of a trend. Now here is a perfectly logical, predictable development, a low-key, quickly grasped metaphor in which a physical activity becomes effortlessly figurative. The only problem with it is it didn’t catch on. Instead, we’ve watched dully as the aimless, fitful, supremely punctuated act of flipping rapidly from one network to the next has become known as “channel surfing.” I don’t know much about surfing, but I think of it as graceful and fluid, not a succession of jolting hops. (“Channel-surfing” is sometimes known as “channel-hopping,” which my fretfully logical mind finds more satisfying.) Now I can see how using “channel surfing” this way makes sense if you think of an old analog radio. One blogger speculates that the term arises from the idea of seeking a good radio wave, like a surfer waiting on the right ocean wave. You’re sitting there, turning the tuning knob smoothly, listening for something agreeable. We did it all the time in the car when I was a boy. It’s the same idea as the discarded usage: finding a good wave and riding it, along with the idea of skimming smoothly along the surface.

But now we must forsake our counterfactual history of this term and revisit what really happened: “surfing” has come to mean “browsing” or “sampling,” and I’m darned if I can figure out why. What is the connection between skimming gracefully along a wave and cycling through a bunch of television channels? The usual sources aren’t much help. The explanations seem more like speculation: looking for a good program is like looking for a good wave; another source declares, “Its only similarity to surfboarding on real surf has to do with the esthetic of ‘going with the flow.'” (This source has the decency to note that the term is ironic because it describes a decidedly un-athletic activity; the implicit sarcasm may have helped it spread.) My girlfriend points out that it resembles surfing both in being continuous motion and in moving quickly over a surface while not falling in, which is smarter than anything I found on-line. But still. How can such an unintuitive twist become standard so quickly without anyone really noticing?

“Channel surfing” and “web surfing” both depend on the idea of aimlessness. (Maybe the old prejudice against surfers because they’re dropouts who don’t do useful work has a subterranean connection here?) You don’t surf to a specific web site or a particular network; there’s no commitment. Thus, channel surfing has joined the roster of stock villains in accounts of the decline and fall of the attention span. The couch potato idly but restlessly flicking from one channel to another, checking on a NASCAR race for a few seconds, then a minute or two of a movie, a cop drama, a reality show, etc., etc., without any real satisfaction, another thirsty pilgrim lost in our media desert, where channels multiply as the amount of television worth watching approaches zero.

Channel surfing became possible with the remote control, which was omnipresent by the 1980’s and had already redefined viewing. In the old days, changing the channel required effort and therefore was always purposeful. You had to get up, walk over there, turn the knob. What can I tell you? In the old days most people actually sat all the way through a single program without changing the channel even once. We even sat through the commercials, for heaven’s sake! No mute button, either. Maybe the surfers are onto something.

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