This enthusiastic exclamation of surfers has its roots in children’s television programming of the 1950s. Cowabunga, or Kawabonga, was originally used by the television character Chief Thunderthud on the Howdy Doody Show. From a Mad magazine parody of the show in the December 1954 issue:
Gosharootie ... I mean Kowabunga, Clarabella! Is something me gottum askum you!!1
(Clarabell the clown was another character on Howdy Doody and this appears to be a reference to the show.)
“Buffalo Bob” Smith, host of the show, explained where the term came from:
As far as I know, our Howdy Doody writer, Eddie Kean “made up” the word Kawabonga—which Chief Thunderthud used when things were bad. When he was happy he said another original(?) word, Kawagoopa.2
1”Howdy Dooit,” Mad (New York) 18 (Dec 1954): 11.
2John Algeo, “Where Do All the New Words Come From?” American Speech 55, no. 4 (Winter 1980): 268.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton