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Oh Dude, you are so welcome

By Anatoly Liberman

I borrowed the title of this post from an ad for an alcoholic beverage whose taste remains unknown to me. The picture shows two sparsely clad very young females sitting in a bar on both sides of a decently dressed but bewildered youngster. I assume their age allows all three characters to drink legally and as much as they want. My concern is not with their thirst but with the word dude. After all, this blog is about the origin of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, rather than the early stages of alcoholism.

My experience confirms the observations of several people who have published on dude: it has become an all-purpose form of address among young men. Surveys show that college age women also use it, but my notes contain no examples. In future, dude may develop like guy. You guys is now unisex; one day, you dudes may become equally “cool.” A very full overview of the history of dude can be found in the journal Comments on Etymology 23/1, 1993, 1-46. Not surprisingly, the origin of dude is unknown. Monosyllables beginning and ending with b, d, g (and even with p, t, k) are the dregs of etymology. Consider bob, bib, gig, gag, and tit (exchange tit for tat if you care). I believe that kick is a borrowing from Scandinavian, but its Icelandic etymon is merely “expressive” and shares common ground with bib, bob, and their ilk.

Dude is a member of a small but happy family: dod “cut off, lop, shear,” dud, duds, and dad. Only did has an ancestry any word can be proud of; the same is partly true of agog, but then agog is not a monosyllable. The OED (in an entry first published in 1897) called dude a factitious slang term. This statement inspired a rebuff from one of our best experts in the history of slang: “There is not a shred of evidence that dude arose factitiously, i.e., somehow artificially. OED simply should have said: ‘Origin unknown’.” Yet a non-artificial origin of dude is hard to come by. I never miss an opportunity to refer to Frank Chance and Charles P.G. Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary, a sadly underquoted, undercited work (among the greats only Skeat seems to have recognized its value). This is what Scott wrote about dude:

“A slang term which has been the subject of much discussion. It first became known in colloquial and newspaper use at the time of the so-called ‘esthetic’ movement in dress and manners in 1882-3. The term has no antecedent record, and is prob. one of the spontaneous products of popular slang. There is no known way, even in slang etymology, of ‘deriving’ the term, in the sense used, from duds (formerly sometimes spelled dudes…), clothes in the sense of ‘fine clothes’; and the connection, though apparently natural, is highly improbable.”

It will be seen that Scott and the OED had a similar attitude toward dude.

Perhaps both the OED’s editor James A.H. Murray and Scott were right. Yet one point should be made in connection with their opinion. The history of slang words deserves as much attention as that of more genteel words. Quite often even good dictionaries, in the etymological parts of their entries, confine themselves to the “explanation” slang, as though saying that a word had at one time was “low” sheds light on its origin. Spontaneous generation is a common process in lexis. Hundreds of words are sound symbolic or obey the stimuli we are unable to pinpoint. Many others were slang at one time but have been “ameliorated” (from rags to riches); historical linguists have not shied away from discussing them. Thus, in the eyes of an etymologist the fact of dude being slang is not a stigma. Fuddy-duddy and dodder are as interesting as hodden “the coarse woolen cloth of farmhands’ dress” or the humble hodmandod “snail.” And yet dude might have been a mere “sound gesture,” as German scholars called such expressive formations.

The hypotheses on the origin of dude are not particularly interesting. Some of them are remembered only because Skeat took part in the discussion. He suggested that dude was an abbreviation of Low German dudenkop “blockhead” (kop = Kopf “head”); the simplex German Dude has also been attested with the same meaning. Another putative etymon suggested for dude is Portuguese doudo, a dialectal form of doido “simpleton, fool.” As a parallel, fop has been cited: the word combines the senses “fool” (the predominant early sense) and “one wearing flashy clothes.” German Dude and Dudenkop never meant “an overdressed person,” and this makes Skeat’s derivation less persuasive. His first note on the subject goes back to 1900; the Portuguese hypothesis circulated even earlier.

A fanciful etymology connected dude with one of the preterit forms of do. Another bizarre guess had it that at one time New York dandies greeted one another with “How dew you dew?” A few letter writers thought that dude has ties with the name of the now extinct dodo. Such wild suggestions have gone a long way toward fostering the opinion that etymology is a pursuit worthy only of the stupidest dudes (duds). A serious scholar wondered whether dude is a borrowing (via American Spanish) of Arabic dud “worm, caterpillar.” Attempts to derive dude from doodle are also on record.

Dude appears to be an Americanism coined in New York City, and that is why it may have been brought to the New World by immigrants. However, the existence of dude in British dialects cannot be ruled out. Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure appeared in 1895. Since the British pronunciation of du- is very often ju- (“Have you paid the jews yet?” That is, dues, not Jews), dude, which became known in England almost at once, was pronounced jude. Did Hardy intend a pun? Jude was modest and unassuming, a simple-hearted dude, obedient to its creator’s agenda.

For the fun of it, I will reproduce a passage ascribing the invention of dude to the famous American businessman Hermann Oelrichs:

“The simple fact is that Mr. Oelrichs, who is distinguished by a deep contempt for effeminacy in either dress or manner, sat one day at a window gazing out on Fifth Avenue. Along came a very much overdressed youth, with so mincing a gait, that involuntarily one of the clubmen with Mr. Oelrichs [the Union Club is meant] began humming an accompaniment to the step, thus: ‘du, da, de, du-du, du, de du’. ‘That’s good!’ said Mr. Oelrichs; ‘it ought to be called a dude’. And dude it has been called ever since.”

This was printed in 1889, in Oelrich’s lifetime. If this story is true, dude was indeed a “factitious” slang term, but such anecdotes are almost never true.


Last week I illustrated the story of balderdash with Balda, a Russian fool. This time our subject has been a New York fool. To break the trend, look at an early photo of the late Natalia Dudinskaya (stress on the second syllable), a great Russian dancer. This image will bring my Russian picture gallery to a close. The root of the ballerina’s name is dud-, as in duda (stress on the second syllable: doo’dah) “pipe,” an onomatopoeia, like German tuten “to toot”, German duden-, which we have seen in Dudenkop, as well as Engl. toot and, arguably, tut-tut. The existence of such words sheds a dim sidelight on the English noun dude, possibly a word of the same plebian descent.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. Paul

    See too Seth Lerer’s really good article about “dude,” philology, and Mark Twain:

    “Hello, Dude: Philology, Performance, and Technology in Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee.” American Literary History 15.3 (Fall 2003): 471-503.

    At Project Muse:
    http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_literary_history/toc/alh15.3.html

  2. John Cowan

    The complete Century Dictionary is available online without charge, courtesy of Google Books.

    I do like its definition of horse: ““A solidungulate perissodactyl mammal of the family Equidæ and the genus Equus: Equus caballus“, followed by a third of a page of encyclopedic information in small print. If you don’t know what a horse is after reading all that, you’re not trying.

  3. flip

    See also Kiesling, Sf. 2004. “€œDude.”€ American Speech 79 (3): 281-305.

    http://www.mendeley.com/share/viewDocument/webLibrary/706551_1872715172:/1331225646/3d9617bf90bd7362cc9e749e4094338bc14b6d47/

  4. Obligatory

    “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

  5. laurence

    I always wondered if “dude” wasn’t coming from “dandy” ( excuse my english I’m not a native speaker )

  6. [...] some plump words; the etymology of carnival; and all the hubbub (bub). The OUP Blog gave us the origin of the word dude, while the Virtual Linguist discussed the language of [...]

  7. thomas stanton

    MY FRIEND JOHN BOVA USED TO CALL ME A DUDE AND I LIKEWISE CALLED HIM THE SAME. BUT ONE DAY, I SAID YOU ARE MORE THAN A DUDE, YOU ARE A DUDERATION. WE NOW CALL EACH OTHER DUDERATION ONE (JOHN) AND MYSELF DUDERATION TWO. TO BE CALLED A DUDE IS OK, BUT IF YOU MAKE THE RANK OF DUDERATION, THEN YOU ARE REALLY A DUDE. peace, tom stanton, aiken, s.c.

  8. Michael Lamb

    >There is no known way, even in slang etymology, of ‘deriving’ the term, in the sense used, from duds (formerly sometimes spelled dudes…), clothes in the sense of ‘fine clothes’; and the connection, though apparently natural, is highly improbable.”<

    It seems to me both natural and probable: isn't it good old-fashioned metonymy? Think of "suit" for popinjay.

  9. JJ

    Obligatory said all that needs to be said.

    I am not “Mr. Lebowski”. You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

  10. [...] of the foreign-born in 2010 was 67.9 percent, compared to the native-born rate of 64.1 percent. Oh Dude, you are so welcome At the Oxford University Press Blog, Anatoly Liberman takes a look at the etymology of the word [...]

  11. [...] “How dew you dew?” — to it being the result of a poor British pronunciation. Oxford Etymologist, Anatoly Liberman, also points to an 1895 Thomas Hardy novel as a potential source. According to [...]

  12. Mark

    Was always thinking “dude” derived from shortened/corrupted version of “doodle” – as in “doodle dandy.” Since the words appeared in context, I thought there would have been some connection…

    wikipedia – As a term “Doodle” first appeared in the early seventeenth century,[4] and is thought to derive from the Low German dudel or dödel, meaning “fool” or “simpleton”. The Macaroni wig was an extreme fashion in the 1770s and became contemporary slang for foppishness.[5] The implication of the verse was therefore probably that the Yankees were so unsophisticated that they thought simply sticking a feather in a cap would make them the height of fashion…

    Seems plausible to me….

  13. Darren R. Starr

    From what I understood (as a lover of linguistic trivia but certainly no expert) the term dude was a slang term used in the old west to refer to horse dung. Some farms know for raising horses had a huge supply of horse dung and would sell it as fertilizer and their ranches became known as dude ranches. This is the same concept as why north easterners in the U.S. teach their children to refer to the process of defecating as “Going doody”.

    Well, no horse rancher was going to publicize that his horse ranch was a dude ranch because of what came out of the horse’s rear end, but instead led people on to believe that the cool and slick cowboys running the farm were “dudes” and therefore giving it a “cool” tone about it. Then as with many words, it spread.

    I believe this explanation came from my 9th grade English teacher who was quite adverse to the use of slang in her class and as an effort to deter us from using it, “Set us straight.” It was a well spread rumor she was a second generation descendant from a southern plantation slave that eventually became a slave driver herself. But given her Southern roots, it seems reasonable she’d be familiar with folklore such as this.

    I’d be interested in researching this further, but I pretty much can’t standard going to “The heart of America”

  14. [...] work. Read the posts in this blog on conundrum and bigot, to see how things sometimes happen. Or read the recent post on dude. The “ultimate” origin of dude is not much clearer than that of diggity. So here is my [...]

  15. Timothy O'Brien.

    I first heard girls called “dude” in an early episode of South Park. Presumably the writers had heard it before. All I now is, before that show I never heard dude applied to females, after that show I heard it all the time

  16. A.M.

    Liberman, you are one cool dude. Thanks for this post! In honor of it, I’d like to share an excerpt from a comedy routine I heard during my commute to work this morning.

    “I wonder what the most intelligent thing ever said was that started with the word dude.
    ‘Dude, these are isotopes.’
    ‘Dude, we removed your kidney. You’re gonna be fine.’
    ‘Dude, I am so stoked to win this Nobel Prize. I just wanna thank Kevin, and Turtle, and all my homies.’”

    – Demetri Martin

  17. Scott Kiesling

    Your notes have no uses by young women? Really? Have you watched any american TV lately?
    In fact just this evening I was watching a horrible but kind of funny TV movie (“Big Time Rush”) and a young girl addresses the older male villain with ‘dude.’
    Of course as someone with a 13 year old American daughter, I hear it almost daily.

  18. Tref Daniels

    What about dud ranch as used in many western states. ?

  19. Scott Underwood

    Not a help with its origins, but I’ve often wondered if the modern popularity of dude started in the surfing community in the sixties, and derived from the 1962 Western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” in which bad guy Lee Marvin uses it often to refer scornfully to Jimmy Stewart, the new lawyer from the East: “You heard him, Dude. Pick it up.”

  20. [...] February blog on dude has been picked up by several websites, and rather numerous comments were the result of the [...]

  21. [...] refer to each other or to a group of men and women. The Oxford University Press suggests (http://blog.oup.com/2012/02/dude-word-origin/) that the word dude might go in the direction of guys soon enough. In the same way that we use [...]

  22. [...] “rags; clothes” (of obscure origin). In my post on dude, I discussed its unlikely derivation from duds and took everybody’s familiarity with duds for [...]

  23. [...] “Oh Dude, you are so welcome” by Anatoly [...]

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