Let’s begin by understanding the terminologies and associated phrases.

What Does Surfing Mean?

Surfing is a water sport in which participants stand or lie on a special board to ride the top of a wave.1

What Does Surfing the Web Mean?

Surfing the web refers to “the activity of spending time visiting different websites on the internet.”1

So, how does surfing relate to web browsing?

To imply that using the Internet is similar to surfing, the metaphor “surfing the net” uses the ocean’s physical space.2 

How did the Metaphor Come About?

If you’ve ever used the term “surfing the web,” you owe Jean Armour Polly a debt of gratitude. And yes, the famous librarian’s catchphrase was indeed inspired by riding waves. The phrase was first used as the title of a 1992 article written by Jean Polly and published in the University of Minnesota Wilson Library Bulletin. Jean Polly wrote her article, “Surfing the Internet: An Introduction,” in reference to using the web for a library journal.2

Jean Polly

When Polly was deciding on a title while at her computer, she noticed a surfer, a wave, and the words “Information surfing” on her mousepad; this ended up being her metaphor because she was looking for something that would “evoke a sense of randomness, chaos, and even danger.2 

After finishing the piece, Polly briefly left the world of libraries to work for NYSERnet, a nonprofit research organization that was among the state’s first internet service providers. When she was employed there, she circulated the surfing article, and it nearly went viral at the time.2

Although other people were using the same metaphors at the time, the famous saying is frequently credited to Jean Polly. Polly claims that a few earlier uses have been discovered in Google’s recently made public Usenet archives.3 Additionally, according to Ron Mion, the person behind the marketing strategy for the IBM Personal Computer, the idea was used five months prior to the publishing of Polly Jean’s article, in a 1991 comic book published by the California Education and Research Federation Network (CERFnet), an internet service provider. 2 CERFnet’s comic book centered around a character and her sidekick that “surfed the internet.”2

Polly is generally credited with coining the phrase, despite some debates about its origin. Whoever the term’s creator may have been, “surfing the web” is one of our go-to internet metaphors, and we use it almost all the time!

If you found the story behind this catchphrase interesting, you might also want to read about the story Why Errors in Software Code Called “Bugs” here.

For more thought-provoking articles on math and coding, visit BYJU’s FutureSchool Blog.


  1. SURFING | meaning, definition in Cambridge English Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2022, from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/surfing 
  2. The women who coined the expression “Surfing the Internet.” (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2022, from https://www.surfertoday.com/surfing/the-woman-who-coined-the-expression-surfing-the-internet 
  1. Who Invented Surfing the Internet? (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2022, from https://www.netmom.com/surfing/who-invented-surfing-the-internet