A version of this post originally appeared in The Week.
Slang has to start somewhere. And according to The Story of English—a late ‘80s PBS documentary hosted by Robert MacNeil—the kids were picking it up from California, that “breeding ground for every new kind of lifestyle, every fresh form of religious practice or cult of self-improvement, the state that thrives on defense contracts and flower children.” More specifically though, they were getting it from the surfers, the most California subculture of them all.
After a clip of the band the Surf Punks “cranking on some radical tunes,” the band members sit down and hang for a little beach interview about the latest terms, including the still current “tight bod,” the dated but familiar “gnarly,” and the weirdly obscure “hairball!”
The terms ultimately moved from the beach to the mall, and with the help of Moon Unit Zappa and her song “Valley Girl,” to the rest of the country. Watch the most adorable mall teens imaginable explain classics like “bag your face,” “tubular,” “bitchin’,” and “to the max.”
At the end, the late New York Times language columnist William Safire calls “Valley Girlese” a “happy passing fancy,” like streakers (“What ever happened to streakers?”). However, we see from the earnest explanations of words like “totally” and “awesome,” which need no explanation today, that some aspects of Valley Girlese have had a much longer than anticipated shelf life.
As it happens, the most ‘80s moment in the clip is not related to language at all. Get your true nostalgia fix at 0:25, as you marvel at the Surf Punks, all holding up their wrists to show off their totally rad watches.
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