‘Narly’ or 'Gnarly': Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on October 27, 2022

When someone uses the word ‘narly,’ what do they mean? Is the proper spelling ‘gnarly’ or is ‘narly’ also correct? This article will explore everything you need to know.

The correct spelling of this word is ‘gnarly’ and not ‘narly.’ It has several meanings, with the slang definitions particularly associated with surf culture in the US:

  • Full of knots
  • Slang: Very bad, very difficult, unpleasant, disgusting, dangerous
  • Slang: Cool, excellent, pleasant, awesome

What Does ‘Narly’ Mean?

The correct spelling of ‘narly’ is actually ‘gnarly,’ but it is commonly misspelled without the ‘g’ at the beginning. ‘Gnarly’ has a few different definitions, several of which are American English slang definitions.

The technical dictionary definition of ‘gnarly’ is:

  • “Having or characterized by gnarls; gnarled.”

Obviously, that’s not that helpful because it still has the word ‘gnarls’ as a part of the definition. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of the word ‘gnarl,’ is:

  • Noun: ‘A hard protuberance with the twisted grain on a tree’
  • Noun: ‘Snarl, growl’
  • Verb: ‘To twist into a state of deformity’

If you come across the word ‘gnarly’ or ‘narly’ in common speech or casual conversation online, though, the most likely definition implied is the slang definition. This has two opposite definitions, which are:

  • ‘Excellent, attractive’
  • ‘Awful, unpleasant, ugly, disgusting’ or ‘difficult, dangerous’

‘Gnarly’ is perhaps best known for its association with American surf culture in the 1960s and 1970s. In this usage, it can mean either ‘disgusting’ or ‘excellent’ depending on the context. Though surfing has a long history that stretches back to the ancient Polynesians, the popularity of modern surfing started peaking in the 1950s and 60s in places like California, Hawaii, and Australia.

Surfers always want to ride the best possible waves, which has to do with the unpredictable nature of weather events. ‘Gnarly’ is one of the terms surfers would use to describe the wave conditions, which implies that the wave is ‘large, difficult, and dangerous.’

Is It ‘Narly’ or ‘Gnarly’?

The proper spelling of this particular word is ‘gnarly.’ However, because the ‘g’ at the beginning of the word is silent when spoken, you will find frequent misspellings of the word in the form of ‘narly.’ The word ‘narly’ doesn’t have a definition of its own, so you can be fairly confident when you come across it that the implied word is ‘gnarly.’

Does The Slang Word ‘Gnarly’ Imply Something Good or Bad?

One of the most fascinating aspects of the slang word ‘gnarly’ is that it can have two contradictory definitions, one referring to something awesome and the other referring to something dangerous or unpleasant.

So, how are you supposed to know if someone is describing something positively or negatively when they say it is 'gnarly'?

The key is in the context that the word is used. If you hear the word spoken out loud, you can usually tell by the person’s tone of voice.

The positive sense of the word ‘gnarly’ is particularly associated with surfer culture. In fact, the word ‘gnarly’ has become something of a cliche when stereotyping surfers and surf culture.

Surfers also commonly refer to dangerous, risky waves as gnarly. This can sometimes have a nuanced implication, meaning that it is extreme and dangerous but in an exciting and awesome way.

If the word is used in written English where you can’t pick up on verbal cues, you’ll want to look at the larger context of what is being discussed. If someone is talking about how much they dislike a certain musical band, for instance, and uses the word ‘gnarly,’ they likely mean that the music is harsh and unpleasant. Similarly, if someone is describing a problem they are facing that is difficult to deal with or risky, the word ‘gnarly’ implies the negative connotation of ‘dangerous or difficult.’

If a person is talking about a person they look up to and describe them as ‘gnarly,’ they are likely expressing that they are extreme in a positive way.

Where Does ‘Gnarly’ Come From?

The word ‘gnarly’ in the sense of ‘knotted and rugged’ comes from the word ‘gnarl.’

This word is likely a variant of the word ‘knurled,’ which itself comes from the Middle English word ‘knar’ meaning ‘knot in wood, knob, protruding mass on a tree’ from the late fourteenth century. The word stretches back to the early thirteenth century to mean ‘a rugged rock or stone, a crag’ that is related to a collection of Germanic words that include:

  • Knock
  • Knob
  • Knuckle
  • Knurl
  • Knoll

In 1603, Shakespeare used the word ‘gnarled’ in a way that is thought to have popularized the term:

[T]hy sharpe and sulpherous bolt Splits the vn-wedgable and gnarled Oke. ["Measure for Measure," II.ii.116]

In the 1970s, the word ‘gnarly’ was picked up as surfer slang as a way to describe waves that were particularly dangerous. By 1982, it had become a part of popular teen slang in the United States. Since then, the word has been used to describe something as either ‘disgusting’ or ‘excellent,’ depending on the context.

Using ‘Gnarly’ In a Sentence

Now that we know what ‘gnarly’ means and where the term comes from, let’s look at how you can use it in a sentence.

  • The waves were so gnarly on Friday.
  • You’ve got to listen to their new album, it has some gnarly guitar riffs.
  • She has a lot of confidence on her bike, but even she was timid on the gnarly hairpin turns.
  • I want to hang out with him again. That guy is gnarly.
  • He was hoping to use some of the wood from the tree to make furniture, but it was so gnarly he decided to save it for firewood instead.
  • Steve was the only one brave enough to face the gnarly conditions.
  • After many long days of difficult work, their hands were gnarly and calloused.
  • The mice made a home for themselves right above the gnarly spot on the tree.

Final Thoughts on ‘Narly’ and ‘Gnarly’

If you use the word ‘narly’ in casual online conversation, there’s a good chance people will understand that you are implying the meaning of the word ‘gnarly.’ That being said, it can be a good practice to stick with the proper spelling of words, even when they counterintuitively include a silent consonant.

Since there are contradictory meanings to the slang definitions of ‘gnarly,’ it can be useful to incorporate some context when using the word. This way, you can ensure that the meaning you intend is actually implied.

There are so many fascinating idioms, phrases, and terms in the English language to explore. Whether you are new to the language or are a native speaker, there is a never-ending supply of new words and phrases you can incorporate into your speaking and writing.

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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