Surfing's living treasure, Matt Warshaw, is lauded in the New Yorker! Let us celebrate him!
You most certainly know how much we (me n Derek) love our Matt Warshaw. The bespectacled surf historian is absolutely indispensable and do you want to know why? Because his brain is filled with so much wonderfully pointless fact, yes, but more importantly he ain’t afraid to share an opinion. And in our oftentimes beige little world an opinion, any opinion, is like a pastel masterpiece.
Oh I could spill thousands upon thousands of words on the man, what he means, why he is important but mine are, more or less, worthless. The New Yorker, on the other hand, is the Shangri La of writing! The pinnacle of respectability! And today, Matt Warshaw is there. Let’s read!
Last year, editors at the Oxford English Dictionary, in the midst of a long march toward a third edition, set out to add an entry on “tandem surfing.” (“The practice of two people riding a single surfboard at the same time.”) They were seeking an earlier citation; the best they had was from 1961, in the Los Angeles Times. A researcher contacted a surf museum in San Clemente, California, and eventually wound up in touch with an autodidact in Seattle named Matt Warshaw.
Warshaw is the world’s leading surfing scholar, the Linnaeus of the lineup. Over the years, he has assembled a research library, in his home, of hundreds of books, thousands of periodicals, and some three hundred and fifty movies, and created a database: logged, indexed, searchable. From all this, and from his own experience as a California beach rat, middling pro surfer, and surfing writer, he composed the idiosyncratic yet authoritative “Encyclopedia of Surfing,” which was published, to wide acclaim, in 2003. “I decided to rule this domain that no one gives a shit about,” he said the other day. In the past half-dozen years, he’s been transferring the encyclopedia’s fifteen hundred-odd entries to the Web, and adding many new ones, along with a wealth of photographs and videos. He has likened this migration to Dorothy’s arrival in Oz.
Within a day of the request from Oxford, Warshaw came across, in his stacks, a mention of “tandem surfing” from 1935. You can now find, in the O.E.D.’s Web edition, the following citation: “T. Blake Hawaiian Surfboard (front material, verso of fifth leaf) (caption): ‘A tourist, without surfboard experience, can enjoy . . . tandem surfing. The boy in most cases does most of the work, his partner enjoys the rides.’ ”
The O.E.D. sent Warshaw a few more terms, and before long hired him to be its first-ever Surf Consultant (total pay: four hundred pounds). The O.E.D. has some three hundred consultants, who provide an extra layer of expert scrutiny in such areas of arcana as falconry and wine. It has always tried to keep up with American slang; noted recent additions are “Masshole” and “vape.” “Clearly, they felt they needed to up their surf game,” Warshaw said. He speculated that there was a closet surfer on staff.
The dictionary people sent him about seventy terms, among them “barrel,” “reef rash,” “board sock,” “grom,” “close out,” “dawn patrol,” “doggy door,” “green room,” “shaper,” and “swallowtail.” His database, unfortunately, didn’t contain most of these, so he soon found himself scouring old magazines and manuals—“like a fucking intern.” Days turned into weeks. “I got obsessed,” he said. “I didn’t want to let them down.” Often, he succeeded in finding an earlier mention. Now and then—maybe every third entry—he found something to tweak in the definition, or a bit of illuminating context.