Etymology & Origin: ‘Surfing’

Where does the term ‘surfing’ come from?

Tracing the etymology of the term surfing should – in theory – be a simple search away.

One would think, that there is a simple, confirmed answer tracing back a few decades to the post WWII, or even as far back as a British explorer coining the term out of pure divine inspiration whilst watching an indigenous tribesman gliding across the waves.

Unfortunately, the answer that we seek is not provided by a simple search.

Etymology of Surfing

There is no definitive answer to the etymology of ‘surfing’ as yet. There may never be one either. The best we can do is assemble the most reasonable information from a variety of sources.

Surfertoday attributes it’s article on the matter to an online dictionary (undefined) where the applicable definition involves ‘the sport or pastime of riding a wave towards the shore while standing or lying on a surfboard’.

They then credit the linguistic belief that the term ‘surf’ originates from around 1600 onwards, where “the shoreward surge of the sea” denotes the waves breaking toward the beach. This theory is further reinforced in online forums – which we can only trust to a point – where the term ‘surf’ may have come into use as early as 1590 along the southern Indian coastline.

To double down even further, by de-constructing ‘surf’ to ‘suffe‘ (origin unknown), it phonetically denoted “a rushing sound” – which we can easily link to our memory of waves peeling down the beach.

As yet, we are no closer to a clearly accepted answer, which is perhaps for the best. Although, if we are to take it in it’s verbal form: “riding the crest of a wave” from as early as 1917 may suffice for current understanding.

What’s the connection between Captain Cook and surfing?

The British Naval expedition of the HMS Discovery ultimately ended with LT James King as captain when Cook was killed in Hawaii.

His expedition log was completed by the new captaincy in 1779, who described the process of Hawaiians “keep[ing] their plank in a proper direction on the top of the swell, [meaning] they are left exposed to the fury of the next.” .. “to avoid it, [they] are obliged again to dive and regain the place, from which they set out.”

Here, we at least get an accurate picture of surfers paddling, turning, and catching waves, but it appears to miss any mention of ‘surf’ or ‘surfing’.

Looking toward the turn of that century, in 1798 we find Ebenezer Townsend Jr aboard the Neptune in the South Pacific – Oahu to be exact – , first using the term ‘surf-board‘ in his diary:

“…In landing in a heavy surf they [Hawaiians] manage exactly as i have seen the negroes at Turks Island, in the West Indies. The Third roller, or sea, is the heaviest; ... would go in on the top of it with a quick velocity, which would carry them well up the beach.”

They would land with the utmost ease where you or i would have drowned. They sometimes m[a]ke use of surf-boards.”

He then clarifies:

the surf-board is about their own length and floats them lighter”… To which no more mentions are made in his journal, although it is interesting to read what was made of Hawaaians in this era.

He does, go on to describe watching the Hawaaians dive to pick up discarded British nails, and calling them “the greatest thieves in the world” albeit “certainly the most cheerful”, before recounting his experience in getting his leg tattooed and subsequent painful days to follow.

Also, according to Townsend Jr, the Hawaaians “neatness” sat between the “miserable” Tierra del Fuegans (now Argentina) and the Italians in terms of ‘refinement’.

Has the definition of surfing changed through history?

In the present day, we use ‘surfing’ ambiguously, and have so since 1993 to also describe ‘surfing’ the web. In this sense, merriam-webster defines it as ‘scanning a wide range of offerings for something of interest‘, which fits nicely into our activities in the water too.

Linking all these pieces together historically, we can come to a loose consensus through:

Surgo/Surgere (Latin) – “Up/Arise/Get Up/Surge
Surge/Suff (English) – “shoreward surge of the sea
Eventually becoming:
Surf (17th Century English) – origin as yet unknown.

Are we any closer to unravelling the mystery? No.

Surfing’s origin: Peru or Hawaii?

Why are we mentioning Peru? Well, there’s recent evidence to suggest that these (now) South American surfers may have had the jump on the pacific islanders.

Apparently, they’ve been surfing for over 2000 years.

Vessel Representing a Reed Boat And Rider Chimu, Late Intermediate Period  900-1470 CE ceramic PC.B.621 DUMBARTON OAKS | Archaeology, Boat, Oaks
source: – Pre Columbian Chimu Wave Riding CA 900-1470 CE

The above image of pottery is now considered as evidence that these ‘pre-columbian’ Chimu – who followed the Moche peoples of the region – used their straw water-craft to ride waves for fun.

Sounds like surfing, right? Well, they were predominately fishermen. They would use paddles to right the waves back into shore at the end of a days work, riding their straw boats like horses.

North Coast, Peru - 2020 Travel Guide
Now known as Trujillo, Northern Peru.

Here they were, doing their thing in the northern coast of Peru. Fishing, surfing, having a grand old time. 500 years of pure stoke, healthy living and erotic pottery. What could be better?

chimu erotic pottery

And then the Incas shut down the party around 1500.

But the polynesians brought surfing to Hawaii in the 4th Century?

Why then, is there any debate to as to surfing’s origin? Polynesians are thought to have brought a kind of bodyboard with them when they first arrived in Hawaii. These were called ‘Paipo’, and look similar to the Alaia’s of today seen in gentle rolling waves.

It’s simply a matter of approximation. The peruvians have clearer evidence to show that a kind of surfing was done, through the retrospective historical pottery made years later.

The polynesians may well have done it since they found wooden flotsam on the beaches. The issue is that the evidence weighs in the favour of Peru, since there is a longer written tradition, and better preserved artifacts.


So there we have it. 2 unanswered questions, for the price of one.

Did you expect otherwise? I think not.

Was that the point of this article? Also no.

The real reason for this article can be found here, which we’ll sum up with an acronym: LSI.

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