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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | teenagese (surfing) | “psyched,” “thrilled,” “fired up”)

Every now and then, an old word sprouts a new meaning — cougar, default, enable, flag — usually more or less related to at least one of its old ones (though not always in an obvious way). “Stoked” has taken on a new definition, all right, one that reverses centuries of practice by carelessly becoming intransitive. Even more important, its weight has changed. By acquiring its new meaning within the lingo of an evocative component of American (or at least Californian) culture, the word has become lighter, spread wider, and veered away from its stolidly literal roots.

I don’t know when surfers began using “stoked,” or why. The earliest instance cited in the OED dates from 1963, so it’s likely to be older than that. Based on the few early quotations I found, the term had a somewhat mystical cast back in the sixties. “Stoked” was more like ecstatic than merely excited — so blissed out by surfing that you graduated into an exalted state, which some surfers adopted as a way of life. In that light, it sounds suspiciously like “hooked,” but “stoked” is not normally used to mean “high” or “buzzed,” nor should it be. “Ev’ryody must get stoked” ain’t how the song goes. Whatever American Heritage says, this term has never had anything to do with drug-aided intoxication.

The older metaphorical uses of “stoke” have never disappeared and show no signs of waning even now. Debate, passions, fear, tensions, anger, pride — all subject to stoking, fueling, or building up. The literal use, which has to do with fires and furnaces, has not gone anywhere, either (the older sense of preparing for hard labor by eating heavily is disappearing). Far from supplanting all the old uses of the word, the new one has grown up alongside, like ivy, simply making the word more common in everyday language. It wasn’t until 1990 or so that “stoked” made it out of glossaries of this semester’s college slang and into anything remotely like mainstream discourse; the term was primarily used by young athletes, following their comrades the surfers and skateboarders. Even today, I would say that you still expect the word to fall from the lips of the young and hip; older people don’t use it as much. And it is still characteristic of the entertainment industry (including sports). But now we all know what it means, which wasn’t true twenty-five years ago.

“Stoked” may be the most successful example of surfer jargon penetrating mainstream talk, no longer even slang, exactly, yet retaining a slangy sound. “Wannabe” also grew out of surfers’ lingo, at least partly. There are a few surfing terms, aside from “stoked” — e.g., “bail” (abandon), “dude,” maybe “gnarly” or “rad,” that have shed their dubious wave-borne past and entered the language. Most surfer terms — for instance “hang ten,” “wipeout,” or “amped” (which means the same thing as “stoked”) — are still easily identified as such. You know a slang expression has arrived when most people have become unaware of its origins.

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