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Dudes, dandies, swells, and mashers

By Anatoly Liberman

My February blog on dude has been picked up by several websites, and rather numerous comments were the result of the publicity. Below, I will say what I think of the word’s “true” etymology and quote two pronouncements on “dudedom,” as they once appeared in The Nation. But before doing all that, I should thank the readers who pointed to me the existence of some recent contributions to the subject. I had read Scott F. Kiesling’s article “Dude” in American Speech (79, 2004, 282-305), but I missed Seth Lerer’s excellent essay “Hello, Dude: Philology, Performance, and Technology in Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee” (American Literary History 14, 2003, 471-593). Sooner or later I would probably have run into it in some bibliography, but better sooner than later, the more so as this novel has been one of my great favorites since childhood.

Dude was attested at least as early as 1877, even though the dude craze swept New York City in or around 1883. The word crossed the Atlantic, receded into the background on both sides of the ocean, returned to American slang after a century of hibernation, and attained astounding popularity. Today dude is a colorless term of address, applicable to both men and women. Everybody is a dude, which is boring. Our correspondents keep suggesting that dude goes back to dandy or dud, or doodle. A persuasive etymology should combine three elements: sound, sense, and historical verisimilitude. Besides finding a seemingly plausible etymon (in slang it is usually a look-alike), the researcher should show how it yielded the noun, verb, or adjective under discussion in the place where it was first recorded and at the time when it turned up. Dud has a long history, and it was never pronounced with the vowel of dude; dud “failure; loser” is a different word. How then did the transformation occur and why in the last quarter of the nineteenth century? The phonetic barrier is also insurmountable for dandy. Finally, as far as we know, dudes never doodled.

Two swells: Oscar Wilde and the ocean.

It so happens that I too have a feeble suggestion on the origin of dude. I did not risk publicizing it in the original post, but Mr. Darren R. Starr’s hypothesis resembles mine so strongly that I will now make my thoughts known for what they are worth. I believe that dude came into being as a derogatory term, a slur, like those political slurs (compare the history of Tory and Whig) that are later adopted by the ridiculed group. Something similar also happened to the word gay. Despite some obscure references to British music halls, dude seems to be an American coinage, for the British source has never been found. From a phonetic point of view, dude is a sibling of boob and poop (oo between two stops). Such baby words are usually humorous or offensive. It has always been my suspicion that dude belongs with formations like doo-dah, doo-doo, and even Dada of Dadaism fame (the latter is from French baby talk: da-da “hobbyhorse, giddyap”). Dudes, the affected fops, were an object of contempt. At some time, dude may have been synonymous with shit (sorry for being so outspoken, but feces or excrement will not convey my message).

Mr. Starr notes that in the Old West dude meant a huge supply of horse dung sold as fertilizer from so-called dude farms. He also thinks that children go doody for the same reason. A baby is probably encouraged to “do” its business; hence the reduplication doo-doo; this guess is close to mine. Another communication I received came from Mr. J.C. Eichman. It lists a few familiar senses of dude, but the information in the concluding paragraph of the letter may not be known to everybody despite what one finds in the Internet. Here it is: “On the west coast, in surfer writing or stories, the word dude came into a meaning not unlike the British word mate, a partner or a special friend.” Apparently, the surfer meaning is now universal. I will quote a passage from a newspaper published in Minnesota. Its title is “With Dude of the Statehouse departing, we lose a class act.” Among other things, we read in it: “A veteran of Iraq war, the quick-witted and good-natured Republican from Cotton Grove had become the Dude of the Statehouse, a guy’s guy who showed uncommon common sense and rare bravery and independence.” Congratulations on the advent of dude’s (or dudes’) dudes.

Dude ranches (the thing and the phrase) hardly predate the twenties of the past century, so that they are not useful for the etymology of the much earlier word. Yet dude seems to have been an import from the American west. It was, I believe, coined from doo-doo and had the sense “shit.” First it was applied to greenhorns and tenderfoots from the east, but later, like many such words, it could be used facetiously with the meaning “fellow, mate, person” (compare the ways of the much more offensive c**t, especially in Canada and Australia). At that time, no one doubted what the word meant. When the fashion for pointed shoes, tight trousers, high collars, embroidered, velvet-lined waistcoats, canes, and the rest set in in New York, the young men sporting such clothes were derided as dudes (dude = piece of shit). How this western word caught on on the East Coast when the fashion swept New York remains a missing link in the proposed etymology, but it may not be fortuitous that in the east no one had a notion where dude came from. (Other than that, local words often reach big towns and stay there. For example, slang is a north British word with a long history; another dialectal word is pimp.)

The first dudes were Anglomaniacs. Perhaps this circumstance suggested to some people that the word had its roots in England. Unlike the swell and the dandy of the previous generation, the dude was mere form. This is what an anonymous author said in 1883: “A dude cannot be recognized by his conversation, for he has none; and in society, as at present organized, this negative mark is not distinguishing, because the number of people of any kind who have any is admitted to be small and steadily decreasing…. A high-spirited, hilarious dude would be a contradiction in terms…. There is no evidence that the dude enjoys life at all. His manner is that of a young man who has a mission of some kind, from which he is determined that the frivolity of the world shall not turn him aside.”

As can be seen, this type is the opposite of the dandy we associate with Oscar Wilde. Nor should the dude be confused with the masher, an infatuated youngster, the object of an old post in this blog. He too wore ostentatious clothes, but he did so for a purpose. The dude was a thing in itself, a man with an undecipherable mission.

In the eighteen-eighties there was a serious discussion about whether a girl could be a dude. The talk was not about the word but about the “institution,” about breaking feminine stereotypes. It is amusing to read the following “progressive” observations, written in 1883: “In one sense there is something girlish about every true Dude, and at the same time something of the dude about every true girl. They are both primarily regulated by fashion as displayed in public places, and this too much in the same way…. Another point which should not be overlooked is, that for many years girls have been consciously imitating male fashion in dress, and… have actually adopted men’s clothes, and now wear, and for a long time have worn, the male ulster, the male cut-throat collar, the heavy male boot, and at least one variety of male hat. To a certain degree clothes have ceased to be a discriminating mark of sex….”

Unisex, along with the degradation of the young, is not our invention, and we need not feel surprised that our women call one another dude; all surveys are unanimous in this respect. It is a good thing that no one remembers the word’s etymology. Ignorance is bliss.

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 [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. Belinda

    When I was a schoolgirl in Rural Victoria, Australia, in the early 1990s, there was a lot of discussion about where the word “Dude” came from and what it meant. The REAL meaning, we solemnly told each other was that Dude refers to a camel’s penis.

  2. Marc Leavitt

    Dude is a common form of address in African American
    Vernacular English,as in “Hey dude, wha’s happ’nin?”

  3. […] a parable or an exemplum. Popular books and blogs prefer to deal with so-called interesting words. Dude, snob, and haberdasher always arouse a measure of enthusiasm, along with the whole nine yards, […]

  4. […] etymological folklore of dude. I received two comments on the origin of this word. According to the story that used to circulate […]

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