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Climbguistics: The Language of Rock Climbing

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After being involved with climbing for an extended amount of time and traveling around to different climbing areas, one will learn how to talk the sport. That can mean describing routes, providing encouragement to friends, using procedural climbing commands, slang for gear, etc. It comes naturally over time and is taught through exposure, with help from a very accommodating and understanding community. It is no issue being a beginner. If you don’t understand something or feel confused it is never a problem. Climbers are just psyched that other people are getting psyched on climbing as well.This is interesting considering the relations between “insiders” and “outsiders” in other spaces and how language plays a role in those relations.

Professor of linguistics, James Paul Gee, states that “at any moment we are using language we must say or write the right thing in the right way while playing the right social role and [appearing] to hold the right values, beliefs, and attitudes.” This idea can be applied to any social setting, climbing included.  The combination of “saying, doing, being, valuing, and believing” represents a Discourse (note the capital “D”). “They are ways of being in the world, forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities as well as gestures, glances, body positions, and clothes.” So what defines the Discourse of climbing? What are some examples of this Discourse in action? What does it look like?




Upon visiting the local crag (or gym) for the first time, one is bound to look upon experienced climbers and hear them conversing on the wall. “Alright man, it’s looking a little thin. Watch me!”

“OK, dude, you got this! This is the last crux. After these moves it’s just a jug haul to the anchors. Put ‘er down!” The climber lunges to a small hold.

“T’SAAAAAA!” The climber sticks the move but looks insecure. “Fuck, I moved up with the wrong hand.”

“It’s all good. Just match and go up with your left”

“Shit. I’m getting pumped!”

“C’mon, homie. You got this! Send that shit!!”

“Nope! Falling!” The climber pops off the wall and free falls twenty feet before he is caught by the rope. “Shit! I can’t believe I botched that sequence!”

“No worries, man. You’ll get it on your next burn. Way to take the whip.” The belayer lowers the climber the rest of the way to the ground, where he removes his shoes and decompresses from his adventure, ready for a little R&R.

The onlooker views in curiosity. Huh, that was pretty cool, but what really just happened? What did he mean by ‘match’? And ‘botched the sequence.’ Hmm, whatever. 

This is a kind of scenario I recall all too well as a beginner, climbing around experienced climbers and only understanding half of the words leaving their mouths. They go to overhanging faces, grab onto holds the width of a pencil, and then powerfully yet gymnastically throw themselves to another minuscule grip while all their friends on the ground are yelling up words of encouragement. When the climber falls off, he talks to his buddies about what he did wrong and what he will do next, flailing his arms, gesturing the movements. He tosses around words such as “crimp, dyno, sloper, chip, high-foot, etc.,”

To a non-climber, this conversation will not make a lot of sense. Most people are never required to describe the micro-features of a rock in their everyday life. If they have a friend who is a climber and is trying to explain their hobby (sometimes lifestyle), it will not be met with a lot of understanding, mostly just head-nodding and simple acknowledgments. A lot of people have never even thought of rock climbing and what words may go along with it. For anyone curious, I encourage you to view the following video.



That’s definitely a lot of jargon, and it’s just a tiny percentage. In my four years of climbing, different words have been continuously added to my vocabulary, some that have been around since the days of the stonemasters, and others that have arisen among me and my friends during kooky days at the cliffs. Still, I do not know everything. Every now and again I’ll be conversing with another climber and they will drop an unfamiliar phrase, drawing from me a quizzical stare.

It is definitely a funny process, learning how to talk about climbing. On one hand there is all of the technical jargon, for example, the words for the various kinds of holds and different pieces of gear. This is all pretty straightforward and is universal across the board, nothing very interesting here. Then, there come the phrases that reflect the clichés and attitudes of climbing, phrases that you will always hear and almost laugh at because they end up sounding so cheesy. These end up being used selectively and sometimes ironically, although in certain situations there is no other option than to use the cliché, even if it makes you roll you eyes at yourself. It is simply the only choice of words. In the end, everything comes together to create a unique discourse that is rich and entertaining to engage in.

So What’s It Like to Join the Discourse?

To get a sense of what it is like to jump into the Discourse of climbing, what better way than to ask a climber? In this interview with fellow friend and climber, Laura Sowalskie, we get some insight into the process of joining the climbing community and coming into contact with the language. Laura was nice enough to answer my questions, which will hopefully provide a little context into what form the Rock Climbing Discourse takes.



~ Laura leading up “Oompa,” 5.10a, Red River Gorge, KY ~


So, Laura, where are you from?

Central New York.

How long have you been climbing?

Four and a half years since starting and two years seriously.

What type of climber would you describe yourself as?

Primarily a sport climber.

What is your favorite climbing area?

The Red River Gorge (Kentucky).

Do you climb in the gym, outside, or both?


What are you favorite climbing words or phrases?

Crush, Beta.

Have you ever noticed the existence of a climbing language?


Where do you notice this language?

Really any time when talking to climbers about climbing, when they describe the routes they climbed, the manner in which they climbed them, and the quality of the climbs. Their language is riddled with terms that non-climbers would not understand.

Among what types of climber do you notice it?

All experienced climbers. It actually takes a while as a beginner to understand what all the terms mean. You have to have quite a bit of experience, or have done a decent amount of research to really understand all the terms. For example:  send, onsight, flash, and redpoint are all terms for completing a climb that mean slightly different things, and a beginner may not pick up the subtle differences right away.

Does this language derive far from non-climber language?

Not exactly. There are lots of foreign terms, but many of them make sense in the way that they were derived from everyday language. Send comes from the word “ascend” meaning to go up.

What are the first few words you think of when you think “climbing language”?

On belay, send, onsight, beta, crag, bomber, flash, take, in direct, whipper.

How is “climbing language” integrated with your primary language?

I often use climbing terms for nonclimbing scenarios, usually only when interacting with climbing friends. I’ll sometimes ask for “beta” on something when looking for more information, or tips on how to do something better. Sometimes with certain friends, we shout “send it!” when someone is about to do something. I find myself describing non-climbing things as bomber, rad, sweet, and gnarly after spending lots of time around climbers.

What uses does the climbing language serve?

Integrating climbing language into everyday situations is often comedic. It’s like an inside joke with your climbing friends. There is definitely an aspect of camaraderie when using climbing terms while talking to climbers. It’s exciting to meet other people who speak the same language, especially when you meet them out of the climbing context. It almost makes you feel like you belong to an exclusive club. It’s like meeting someone else who’s wearing Chacos [a brand of sandals]. You feel an affinity with them. And of course, there’s practicality to it. It makes things simpler when there are specific terms for certain features or scenarios that everyone knows. It makes it quicker and easier to describe what a climb looked like, tell a story about how a climb went. It also makes it easy for people on the ground to communicate with a climber on the wall – the sort of scenario where messages need to be concise.

Does climbing language form a piece of your personal identity?

I would say climbing more than climbing language forms a piece of my identity. But you really can’t be a climber without using the language. You can’t interact with other climbers without understanding the language.

What do you like about the climbing language?

It’s pretty relaxed. Anyone can begin to use it without feeling like they’re “faking it.”

Do you notice a language barrier between beginning and expert climbers?

Certainly, because the beginners don’t know all the terms yet, and for the experienced the words are so part of their vernacular they may not even realize they’re using unfamiliar terms.

If so, what is the nature of this barrier? Are beginners marginalized because of their looser grasp of the language?

The only problem is when beginners don’t speak up and ask about terms they don’t know. Most climbers are happy to explain what they mean. But if the beginner is too shy to ask, they’ll go on being confused. But some beginners may feel left out because they’re intimidated and afraid to ask about terms they don’t know.

As a beginning climber…

Were you ever intimidated by experienced crushers? Did their use of a developed climbing language take part in that feeling?

When I first started, I didn’t necessarily feel intimidated, but I was slightly embarrassed on a couple occasions when I found out a term didn’t mean quite what I thought it meant. But it was more embarrassment at myself than feeling like I made a fool of myself in front of others.

Did you ever feel confused about what climbers were talking about?

I used to occasionally when there were unfamiliar terms used. The subtle differences between onsight, send, flash and redpoint were one of the last aspects I came to grasp.

Did you ever feel left out because you did not have a solid grasp of the language?

No. But I also don’t think I jumped into hanging out with people who were all about climbing until I had a better grasp of the language.

How did you navigate the language barrier? Was it difficult to do so?

On the occasion that I didn’t know what something meant, I would ask. I also had conversations with other people who had a similar grasp of the terms about our understanding of what words meant. And I definitely looked up climbing terminology on the internet.

Is this barrier even prominent enough that it is an issue?

It’s only an issue if you make it an issue. Like any specialized area, there is terminology involved. You’re generally exposed to it over time as you encounter more and more climbing scenarios.

Anything else you’d like to say?

It still bothers me that there’s no climbing term for just completing a climb, whether or not you fall or hang. All the different terms are for completing a climb are all for scenarios in which you free-climbed from top to bottom.

Several valuable takeaways can be brought home from this interview, primarily, that it is not hard to join the discourse. In most cases, when you are a little confused about some climbing lingo and need some answers, all you have to do is ask. Other climbers will be happy to help, which really demonstrates the Karuna nature of this fantastic outdoor sport. There is not necessarily an insider/outsider perspective as mentioned by James Paul Gee. What may occur upon mastery of the Discourse however, is a feeling of “solidarity with a particular social network,” which can be great, especially in the community of rock climbing.


Gee, J.P. (1989). Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction. Journal of Education, Vol. 171.

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