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Jane Mairs, Director of English language Learning Publishing
The 3 meanings of gnarly
Thursday September 15th 2011
The 3 meanings of gnarly

Question: Felix asked about the adjective gnarly. Sometimes it means "very difficult, or bad," and sometimes it means "very good." When you see or hear the word gnarly, how can you tell which meaning it has?

Answer: Thanks for asking this interesting question! You are absolutely right that the word gnarly has two nearly opposite meanings. To make matters even worse, there is a third meaning, not slang, which is a synonym for gnarled, meaning "bumpy or twisted."

Fortunately, there are lots of clues to help you figure out how the word gnarly is being used:

The most common use of gnarly is to mean "bumpy or twisted," and it is used in more formal language, to talk about parts of trees: trunks, branches, vines; and to talk about body parts: hands, fingers, feet, toes, etc. Here is an example:

  • She was holding a red apple in her gnarly fingers.

The second most common use of gnarly is to mean "very difficult or bad." It is used as slang. The context around the word will often show that it's about something bad, as in this example about an accident:

  • It looks like somebody had a gnarly accident.

Finally, the use of gnarly to mean "very good" is rare. It is slang, and it is typically used by younger people, and you will usually know from the context that it is about something good, as in this example:

  • He is a jazz drummer, but he also does some gnarly guitar-playing. 


I hope this helps.