What's the meaning of the phrase 'Surfing'?
Surfing (a.k.a. surfboarding) is, in its literal meaning, the riding of a wave while standing or lying on a surfboard.
The word surfing is now applied figuratively as a prefix or postfix to construct phrases relating to other activities, for example 'surfing the net'.
What's the origin of the phrase 'Surfing'?
It is generally accepted that surfing was first enjoyed by Polynesians in Tahiti and Hawaii. The oral tradition of passing chants, called 'Meles', from generation to generation records the practice of surfing in those islands and suggests that it dates back to at least the 15th century. It was first recorded in print in the ship's log of the Discovery, which was part of Captain James Cook's ill-fated expedition to Hawaii. The log was written in 1779 by Lieutenant James King, who took over the captaincy of the ship after Cook was killed.
Modern-day surfing came to the USA in the 20th century and became very popular amongst the young, especially in on the west coast, during the 1960s. When the Beach Boys recorded Surfin' USA in March 1963 they could have had no notion that surfing was to become such a widespread term in the language. What started out simply as 'surfing' migrated into other forms. Initially these were activities that mimicked surfboarding. The first was 'body surfing', which is surfing in the original sense, that is, riding a wave on the sea, but without a board. This was recorded in the Californian newspaper The Oakland Tribune, in February 1939:
"I went body-surfing at Makupuu with Walter Macfarlane, one of the most skillful men at the sport in the territory."
The first use of surfing to be applied to an activity on land was 'van surfing'. This was explicitly defined in a piece in Time magazine in April 1985:
"Cars move slowly past the crowd, and when the passengers get restless they van surf (dance on roofs)."
Soon after that came 'train surfing' - here referred to in The Wall Street Journal, November 1988:
"Riding the tops of trains is a stunt popular among the poor youths of north Rio. Their counterparts in the wealthy south of the city surf the waves; they surf the trains."
The allusions to surfing get progressively less like the original surfboarding as time goes by. In 1989 'crowd surfing' emerged. 'Crowd surfing' is the carrying overhead of someone by a crowd, usually after diving into the crowd from the stage at a rock gig. The Toronto Globe & Mail had this item in November of that year:
"The music is a barrage of stampeding time trials inspiring live audiences to excesses of stage-diving and crowd-surfing."
In November 1986, The Wall Street Journal also recorded 'channel surfing':
"Older consumers who initially spurned cabled expansion of prime-time selections now browse confidently with their new toys, channel-surfing blithely through the evenings."
The use of a remote control to switch channels on a TV set is quite different from the versions above as it it doesn't physically mimic surfboarding. It is surfing only in a figurative sense in that it alludes to the moving easily and smoothly from one place to another.
This has led the way to the various forms of surfing that are applied to the Internet. Like any phrase or saying that has been coined since the World Wide Web was invented (around November 1990) and the Internet became widely used, these can be dated almost to the second. The first of these surfing terms was simply 'surfing the internet'. This is recorded in the archives of the Usenet newsgroup alt.gopher in a posting headed 'Re: Size Limits for Text Files?', 25th February 1992:
"There is a lot to be said for surfing the internet with gopher from anywhere that you can find a phone jack."
The terms World Wide Web and Internet are often confused, especially as they are both frequently called 'The Net'. The use of 'surfing the Internet' is correct here though as Gopher was a program that used the Internet rather than the Web.
'Surfing the net' came later the same year, with this posting in the Usenet newsgroup bit.listserv.gutnberg on 5th August 1992:
... The fourth is that they will have no trouble converting the e-mail messages to a readable file that they can consult while "surfing the net."
Finally we get 'surfing the web', in the Usenet newsgroup posting in bionet.announce, 22nd November 1993:
"BioBit No24 (Surfing the Web)" [heading]