Word Play

Is it time to refresh the language we use?

Image by Jimmy Asteleford and words by Tom Lynskey, taken from Spoke Issue 86

Sixty years ago, Dick Dale released Misirlou. The song’s main riff drives along a double harmonic major scale, invoking  a mystical and hypnotic aura. Dale drowned it in reverb and cranked the tempo and volume into oblivion. The song starts with a plummeting slide before pumping through the main riff. It quickly became a cult surf classic and, even after all these years, it immediately invokes images of a surfer dropping down the face of a massive wave, a wall of white crushing over top  and spraying into the air.

But many are probably unaware that Misirlou owes its ethereal ebb and flow to its origins in the eastern Mediterranean Ottoman Empire. The precise source is unknown, but it was a folk song popularised by Greek, Arabic, and Jewish musicians. The word Misirlou breaks down to mean simply Egyptian woman. When primed with that lens, the evocative images of barreling waves and towering salt sprays recede and intoxicating smoke-filled mirages of diaphanous figures with veiled visages fill the void, proving that with enough probing, even the most tightly held associations are contingent.

The lexicon of a sport is important. It’s woven into our desire for community, a primal instinct that, if not entirely peculiar to humans, was crucial to our success as a species.

The history of mountain biking is contentious, but probably traces back to the late 1960s and early 1970s in Marin County. By the time the sport stood on its own two feet, it had a strong cultural precedent to draw on in surfing, which had been around for at least a couple of hundred years. Like all subcultures, surfing had a strong lexicon, or vocabulary, through which its members could identify and converse with one another.

The lexicon of a sport is important. It’s woven into our desire for community, a primal instinct that, if not entirely peculiar to humans, was crucial to our success as a species. If I speak your language—if I use the right words—it tells you that our interests are sufficiently aligned for you to let your guard down. In surfing, this might even be as important as etiquette. And mountain biking is really no different—there are Alphas, cliques, unwritten rules, secret spots, and things you do and don’t say.

Slap. Charge. Shred. Send. Eat. Rail. Rip. Smash. Plow. Hit. Few of the sport’s chosen words evoke soft imagery. The lexicon seems to elevate an ideal of a powerful, perhaps even violent, style. While a smooth and efficient rider can be appreciated, it’s not the archetype conjured by the language.

But historically the sport has been handed down through its senior members. The secret spots were established and jealously guarded by veterans. In the absence of online trail maps and instant messaging, access was a right that had to be earned and, formally or informally, the hierarchy set the conditions. The lexicon issued from the same place.

These days it’s hard to argue that the old guard still holds the keys. Younger riders have annexed disused forests and reserves and they could care less for anachronisms. The conditions of entry have been torn up. And to be honest, they’ve long since raised the bar. Does this mean that the vocabulary of the sport will be next? If so, will we see the decline of aggressive terminology and the ascension of something more tranquil, akin to Josh Bryceland’s playful post-DH vernacular and style?

It wouldn’t be the worst thing, and while it might be difficult to imagine, no association is sacred. Just queue up a traditional Arabic rendition of Misirlou and see for yourself.