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A gnarly (sense 1) barn door in the village of Silkstone in South Yorkshire, England, UK


gnarl (knot in wood) +‎ -y. The slang senses were particularly popularized by US surf culture in the 1970s.[1]



gnarly (comparative gnarlier, superlative gnarliest)

  1. Having or characterized by gnarls; gnarled.
  2. (slang) Excellent; attractive.
    • 2000 January 16, Sunday Herald, Glasgow:
      There ain't nothing gnarlier (apparently) than slapping on some brightly coloured sunblock to ward off the blinding spectre of dangerous, snow-reflected sunlight.
  3. (slang, US) Dangerous; difficult.
    a gnarly problem
    • 1977 March, Surfer:
      When the swell struck, the North Shore got gnarly, and the wise ones hit the outer islands where the energy was just as juicy but a bit more organized.
    • 2008, [Avram] Joel Spolsky, More Joel on Software: Further Thoughts on Diverse and Occasionally Related Matters that will Prove of Interest to Software Developers, Designers, and Managers, and to Those who, whether by Good Fortune or Ill Luck, Work with Them in Some Capacity, Berkeley, Calif.: Apress, →ISBN, page 152:
      Work that makes you unhappy is what I mean by "a gnarly problem." The trouble is, the market pays for solutions to gnarly problems, not solutions to easy problems. As the Yorkshire lads say, "Where there's muck, there's brass."
  4. (slang, US) Unpleasant, awful, ugly.
    1. (slang, US) Of music or a sound: harsh.
      • 1986 October 12, Los Angeles Times:
        [She] displays the same love of gnarly fuzztones and shout-it-out-loud choruses that began back in her daze[sic] with local all-girl rockers the Runaways.

Usage notes[edit]

Note the word’s contradictory senses of “good” and “bad”. Its meaning varies by community and context, and may be indicated by extra-verbal cues such as tone of voice. The sense of “good” is particularly associated with surf culture, to the point of being somewhat clichéd as in “gnarly wave, dude!”.




  1. ^ Douglas Harper (2001–2022), “gnarly”, in Online Etymology Dictionary.