“Off my wave, you fucking kook!” If you haven’t heard or said some variation of this, you’re either lying or don’t surf. The word “kook” is ubiquitous in surfing. So much so that the moment it becomes a part of your vocabulary is like dipping your head in the baptismal font of culture. You’re in the club. And with one word you can point out everyone who isn’t. The guy with his wetsuit on backward: kook. The chick with her leash on her front foot: kook. The tourist couple waxing the bottom of their boards: kooks.
But kookiness, let’s call it, is a social construct. What I mean is it’s not real. It’s imaginary. And it’s divisive for no good reason. We’re all kooks from time to time. And trying not to be all the time is, frankly, kind of exhausting.
The word, depending on who you ask, has been a part of surf culture since the 1940s—at least in the way we use it today. Tom Blake, famous for developing hollow surfboards in the 1930s and ‘40s, called his design a cigar box or kook box. But in this case, the kook usage doesn’t fit the modern definition of an “inexperienced surfer or someone in violation of the unwritten rules.”
Popularization of the word has a contested history. Matt Warshaw, the preeminent surf historian of our time and developer of the Encyclopedia of Surfing, along with contributor Jeff Divine, argue it derives from the Hawaiian word for shit, “kukae”. The story goes that Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz and his friends who surfed San Onofre in the ‘40s nicknamed a break in the cliffs where they’d relieve themselves Kukae Canyon.
They quickly began to say they needed to ‘take a kook.’ And from there, anything bad became “a kook,” including if you were a piss poor surfer.
Warshaw and Divine say explicitly in the kook entry that the word does not derive from “cuckoo,” as in crazy. It’s worth noting that in the 1950s and ’60s surfers would steal words or phrases from popular culture—particularly television and movies—and appropriate them in an ironic way. Though it didn’t last. “Cowabunga” is a perfect example. Originally spelled “Kowabunga”, this was Chief Thunderthud’s greeting on The Howdy Doody Show. He first appeared on the show in 1953, and the surf world later caught on most likely mocking the kids show as an element of pop culture.
Similarly, another popular TV show that ran from the late ’50s to the early ‘60s, 77 Sunset Strip, featured a recurring comic relief character: Edd “Kookie” Byrns. With surfing’s explosion in popularity around that time (Gidget came out in 1959), the hoards of would-be surfers descending on Malibu, its proximity to Hollywood, etc. it doesn’t seem too farfetched to think “kook” could derive from “kookie.” Who knows, maybe both Doc and friends’ use of the term and “kookie” in pop culture both played a part. The bottom line is unlike other words like cowabunga, kook is one that stuck and pervades to this day.
Our attraction to kook as a word isn’t unlike other insults in English. It has a four-letter monosyllabic musicality. Two harsh consonants with a vowel digraph in the middle (see other four letter words: fuck, shit, you get the picture). But unlike other insults, kook is uniquely rooted in surfing. Other groups have probably appropriated it by now, but its origins are clear.
Calling someone a kook in an effort to put them down, though, whether it’s to their face or among friends, is what Michel Foucault would likely call an act of othering. That is, pointing out someone as an “other” to distance themselves and the group they belong to from that person. It’s artificial and super demeaning. But since the explosion of surfing into the mainstream in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s surfing has become a brand and sold, paradoxically, to even the most landlocked corners of the country. Surfing has an allure, an association with tropical paradise, the beach, and the sun, and, since Gidget, has attracted new surfers in droves. It makes sense that core surfers would feel the need to assert themselves for having been surfing longer, doing it better, doing it the right way, and other nonsense (though there is a right way to put on a wetsuit). So the word to do so has prevailed, and spilled into other cultures.
But when it comes down to it, the essence of kook is uniquely us. We are all kooks, each and every one of us. Acting like it may be the only way to get rid of the seriousness of the oh-so not serious act of playing in the ocean.
This article was originally published on The Inertia on May 19, 2016.