A Brief History of the Word ‘Rad’

Aaron Gilbreath
13 min readJan 4, 2020

\’ra-di-kəl\

Dong a backside grind on the Wild mini ramp in 1987, Goleta, California. Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Hearing teenagers in purple flannels call their soy mochas “rad” perfectly illustrates the mechanisms behind the regurgitating cow stomach that is American pop culture. Not that that’s a bad thing — “nothing new under the sun” and all yields innovative hybrids — but the feedback loop of fashion really strikes a nerve when what was new in your youth becomes another generation’s vintage clothing. One of the dominant aesthetics of the last few years has been the 1980s: Ray-Bans, short shorts, fanny packs, wrist warmers. Forget the old “friends don’t let friends wear neon” maxim. The image of Pretty in Pink James Spader and his antagonistically feathered hair seems the most fitting mascot for our time, a time where we find eighties slang unwittingly coloring our conversations: dude; awesome; bummed; stoked; shred; balls out; this rules. And of course, the crown jewel, rad.

On the suggestion of a childhood friend who is also struggling with the difficult fact of our combined seventy years, I rented Thrashin’. It’s a sports-sploitation flick that came out in 1986 when we were nine years old, and it features all the stomach-churning, Pepto-tinted vibrancy of the era, as well as a Circle Jerks song.

In the mid to late eighties, Hollywood spent much time and money trying to capitalize on then-underground sports and their associated subcultures: surfing (North Shore), breakdancing (Breakin’), BMX-biking (Rad) and skateboarding (Thrashin’, also, Gleaming the Cube). Along with the synthesizer soundtracks and presence of non-ironic moustaches, what unites most of these films is their reliance on the same dramatic formulation: small town kid and/or outsider competes in a high-stakes competition against nationally known surfers/skaters/BMXers in the hopes of not only winning the prize money, but also the respect — and heart — of a girl. As Powell-Peralta-era skaters ourselves, Thrashin’ repelled my friends and me. A skate gang called The Daggers who wear dangly dagger earrings and paint their faces when they “joust” with their enemies in a drainage ditch? In the parlance of our childhood: it was retarded[NH1] redonculous. Listening to lines such as, “Well, what do you thrash?” “Whatd’you got?” felt as embarrassing as having your mom stand outside a skateshop dressing room, checking to see how your pants fit. In a…

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Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.