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



gnarly ‎(comparative gnarlier, superlative gnarliest)

  1. having or characterized by gnarls; gnarled
  2. (US slang) dangerous; difficult
    • 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.Surfer Magazine, March 1977
    • 2008, Avram Joel Spolsky, More Joel on Software, Apress (ISBN 9781430209881), 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.” We offer both  []
    a gnarly problem
  3. (US slang) unpleasant, awful, ugly
    • We're not talking about a lame chick and a gnarly guy. We're talking about a couple of far-out dudes. — D. Jenkins, Baja Oklahoma
  4. (slang) excellent, attractive
    • "There ain't nothing gnarlier (apparently) than slapping on some brightly coloured sunblock to ward off the blinding spectre of dangerous, snow-reflected sunlight. — Glasgow Sunday Herald, 16 January 2000
  5. (US slang) Of music or a sound, harsh
    • "[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.Los Angeles Times, 12 October 1986

Usage notes[edit]

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




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