USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘surf culture’
Folk speech

The Man in The Gray Suit

Interviewer: Do you have any slang or terms from growing up surfing?

CW: Yeah have you ever heard about the man in the gray suit?

Interviewer: No I have not what does that mean?

CW: It’s a term, surfers use at the beach if they see a shark to warn everybody else to get out of the water.

Interviewer: why do people use that term and not just say shark?

CW: People use it because it is a lot more of a calm thing for someone to hear when they are in the water with a shark. It helps to avoid people panicking but if your in an area where people are surfing, which is where it is used, then everyone knows that means shark and it helps them be more calm while getting out of the water. 

Interviewer: Have you ever used this warning or had it used for you?

CW: I’ve never used it but I’ve been on the beach while people yelled it out to surfers. But since I’ve grown up surfing I’ve known to react to the term and have known it for most of my life. 

Interviewer: Is this a term used at specific surf spots you got to or from your knowledge do all surfers know and use this term?

CW: From my knowledge, this is just a term I know is used in Malibu and Santa Monica. I’ve surfed in other places like San Diego and Hawaii but I’ve never heard the term mentioned in those places. 

Interviewer: Is there any other terms you have heard or learned of that do the same function of calmly warning of a shark?

CW: Yeah in Hawaii they use the Hawaiian word Manu. 

Context: My informant is an eighteen-year-old student at USC. He was born in raised in Malibu California. He has surfed nearly his entire life, primarily in Malibu but also in Santa Monica, Hawaii, and San Diego. This folk term was explained in person in the informant’s dorm.

Analysis: This is an interesting piece of folk language used by surfers in Southern California. I have never been a surfer and assumed the appropriate way to warn people of a shark would be by exclaiming that a shark is in the water, but this term seems to be a great way to keep people calm so they can get out of the water in a safer manner. It also is an example of how surfers in Southern California have unique folklore. 

 

general

Surf Culture

The informant went into great depth telling me about the surf culture he was surrounded by growing up.   I was unaware of this prior to speaking to him, but every surfing location has its own culture. Some of these cultures are more distinct than others, and there can be some overlap between them.  The informant is from Mission Beach, San Diego. Although he was not initially aware of it when he went out to surf for the first time, there is a distinct localism that governs the beach where he surfs. He first tried to go surfing at 8 years old. Upon entering the water, he said he was “basically chased and scared back to the beach” by the older surfers.  Over the next couple months, his next door neighbor guided him and showed him the ropes.  The neighbor served as a mentor. What the informant learned was that there was a set rotation that the surfers followed. In order to achieve a spot in this rotation, the informant had to earn the respect of the surfers who had been there for many years more than him.  There is a controlled line up for catching waves.

Here is transcribed some of what he had to say:

Informant: Take someone who has been surfing where I am surfing for 50 years.  I have only been there for 15.  Because they have been there for longer, they will rule the line up more than I would. There is a pecking order. We take turns getting waves because we have all put in our time and earned it. If someone that I do not know paddles out and paddles around me, I will personally get offended. They did not put in their time out there, so why should they get good waves. It is kinda funny actually, all of my best friends are 40 year olds because those are the guys I grew up surfing with.

Me: *Laughter*

Informant: We had an undercover cop who was supposed to infiltrate our line up. We never knew who it was. Maybe it was the guy who disappeared, who knows.

Me: Why? Because it was too aggressive?

Informant: It was too violent.

Me: No way.

Informant: The only way I know that is because I work for San Diego Life Guards, and one of the lieutenants knew that. Lifeguards in San Diego are also Peace Officers so they have to enforce the law. So I guess they were somehow involved in that. He told my parents, and they told me.

Me: Woah. Do people actually fight each other?

Informant: Yeah, look up the version of my spot in LA… Lunada Bay. Look up Lunada Bay violence or something. It is a really good wave.

– I take out my computer and search Lunada Bay Surf. What comes up is an article about localism protests –

Informant: there is a huge thing going on right now where they are protesting localism there. There is some whole… ugh {annoyed face}

Me: And that makes you mad?

Informant: Yeah, slightly. I tried to surf there, and I got chased out of the water, and I understood.

Me: Is that tricky though, because are they really good waves there that you can’t surf?

Informant: Yeah, I didn’t earn it out there, so they are not going to give me the time of day.

Me: Even though you are really good?

Informant: Yeah, and that’s how it goes. The thing is, I do know the system, so I know how to act there.

My analysis: The surf culture the informant grew up in completely shaped him as a person.  He values respect above all else, and has a tendency to snap at people when he feels disrespected. This localism that he grew up surrounded by is distinct to his area, but localism is something that does not just exist on the beach that he surfs. As demonstrated through the Lunada Bay search, localism is a characteristic of other surf cultures as well. There is no law book that surfers must abide by, yet there are certain practices common amongst them.  The logical thought would be that surfers ride waves based on their skill level, but that is entirely not the case.  Localism disregards much of the skill of the surfer and focuses on respect.  This is a great example of how folklore is passed along from generation to generation. The informant made it very clear in the interview that he would never bring friends to surf with him at home, and would get mad at anyone who tried to paddle around him. In doing this, he is continuing to spread the unspoken rules and beliefs of the surf culture he grew up in.

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