Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Dodo or dude? The origin and history of the word dude

Dude: a long history of a short word

This is an informal report of Origin of the Term ‘Dude’, a book by Gerald Leonard Cohen, Barry A. Popik, and Peter J. Reitan, self-published by Professor Gerald Cohen, at Missouri University of Science and Technology. The appearance of the book was not a surprise to me, because notes on this subject have been appearing in the monthly journal Comments on Etymology, edited and published by Cohen, for nearly fifty years. Cohen is the only professional linguist on the team, which shows how very much dedicated outsiders can contribute to the research in the history of some of our most enigmatic late words. Comments on Etymology has existed since 1971. Gradually, Cohen’s interest in word origins shifted to the history of slang, and his contributions to this area are well-known. Dude is of course also slang, though nowadays perfectly inoffensive.

Most of our readers probably know that when work on The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) started, thousands of people began to collect slips illustrating the use of each word in manuscripts and books.  The citations we find in the published entries are a tiny part of what the team at Oxford has amassed. James A. H. Murray, the first editor of the OED, was interested in both words’ history and their etymology. Some such etymologies are fairly transparent, but those are an exception, rather than the rule. For instance, more than a hundred people have written about the etymology of god, but we still do not know what exactly god meant to its creators. Though this is an extreme example, some controversial words have attracted the attention of numerous philologists and amateurs. Locating and evaluating every contribution is a hard task. A few hypotheses can be discarded sight unseen, some others are worthy of attention, and still others are inspirational. Once the scholars have dug their way through this dustheap, they may look at their trophy with satisfaction, doubt, or despair. In the last case scenario, our dictionaries write “of unknown origin.” A book can be written about studying each of those intractable words.

Such books exist. Cohen himself has written two monographs about the word shyster, another monograph, titled Origin of the Word ‘Jazz’, contributed to the success of Origin of the Term ‘hot dog’ by him, David Shulman, and Barry A. Popik and the book Origin of Kibosh (by Stephen Goranson, Gerald Cohen, and Matthew Little). Now it is dude that has been documented with amazing accuracy. The new book is full of quotations from newpapers and magazines, pictures culled from the same sources, and reports of the word’s origin from multifarious sources. Among other things, we are exposed to the history of the dudification of young “swells” and “mashers” in New York and Washington D.C. about a hundred and forty years ago.

Oscar Wilde, the most famous dude ever.
(Library of Congress, public domain)

Origin of the Word ‘Dude’ opens with the following dedication: “To the memory of Robert Sale Hill (1850-1922), whose January 14, 1883, poem ‘The Dude’ [in the New York City newspaper The World] introduced a word which instantly became one of the most popular items in the English slang lexicon.” Three earlier examples of dude are believed to exist, but the authors question the dating of those sources and insist that dude was Hill’s coinage. The value of the book does not depend on this reference: it is the incomparable richness of the material they have amassed that will remain as a permanent monument to their labor of love. After all, every word in every language was invented by someone.

Naturally, Cohen and his companions had to decide how Hill came up with that immortal monosyllable. But let me first quote the relevant lines: “Long years ago, in ages crude, / Before there was a mode, oh! / There lived a bird, they called a ‘Dude’, /Resembling much the ‘Dodo’.” A long description of the new tribe follows. Incidentally, Oscar Wilde, who visited the United States in 1882-83, was looked upon as the quintessential dude and perhaps even reinforced the fashion, with regard to its dress code and affectations. One of the most curious stanzas sounds so: “Imported ‘dudes’ are very shy/ Now ‘Oscar’s’ crossed the ocean, / But native ‘Dudes’ soon learn to fly/ And seem to like the notion.” The book presents a picture of a long search for finding the sources. We do not only get the answer to the riddle but follow the way toward the solution. On page two, we read: “Although the word’s entire history is no doubt interesting, the focus of the present book is on the part the three co-authors have been researching.”

Robert Sale Hill.
(From Serious thoughts and idle moments by Robert Sale Hill via HathiTrust, public domain)

There can be little doubt that Robert S. Hill’s poem propelled the word dude into fame, but where did he get it? The book suggests two sources: the phrase Yankee Doodle (which, it has turned out, could also be used as a term to ridicule a dandy) and the British slang word fopdoodle “a silly-looking fop,” which Hill might know. Presumably, the word’s “offspring” doodle was later shortened to dude. Be that as it may, the crucial point is that Hill wrote a poem about dudes and launched the slang word into prominence. “The dudes of that era were young, vacuous, brainless, wealthy Anglomaniacs who drew widespread amusement and ridicule for their slavish imitation of British dress and speech” (page one). The authors state that the dude craze began immediately. (I can testify to the existence of similar phenomena from my experience. In the 1960s, though I am no longer quite sure of the chronology, young men in the Soviet Union began to wear very narrow trousers. The country’s rulers had no more important task than to eradicate this pestiferous western fashion. The men guilty of following that fashion were called stiliagastress on the syllable –liá, from stil’ “style” and a denigrating agent-forming suffix.) Hill died a century ago, and there is no one to ask whether the proposed etymology is correct, but the entire concatenation of events is typical: a word is coined, the community accepts it with rare enthusiasm, and the author is forgotten. Barry A. Popik excavated this poem, and this was a discovery of prime importance.

The book reads like a thriller. To enjoy it, one does not have to be an etymologist. Here I’ll confine myself to a few remarks. Monosyllabic words beginning and ending with the same consonant are very often expressive. Compare bib and its dialectal double beb “to drink, tipple”, bob (any meaning), dud “worthless object,” gig, kick, pap, pup, poop, boob, and their likes. Such words “pop up,” disappear, and surface again and again. German dialectal Dude also means “fool.” In American English, horse dung was called dude. Though being in big doo-doo surfaced in print only in the twentieth century, the childish word doo-doo is probably very much older. Robert S. Hill may have drawn on several sources and associations, while coining dude. After all, to abstract dude from flapdoodle and Yankee Doodle, he would have had to get rid of the syllable –le and come up with a new item of the vocabulary.

The dudiest dude.
(By Seth Doyle on Unsplash, public domain)

Such musings in no way detract from the achievement of the three authors. They have collected a ton of precious data and traced the history of dude in an exemplary way. The unearthing of Hill’s poem was indeed a major event. Etymology is not only about the act of creation. It has an important social dimension. We want to know how this or that word spread, in what strata of society it gained popularity, and what factors guaranteed its longevity. The Origin of the Word ‘Dude’ answers those questions in an exemplary way and goes a long way toward making etymology a pursuit interesting to the wide world.

Featured image by Roelant Savary, Natural History Museum London, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Gerald Cohen replied to my request on how to obtain the book on etymology of dude:
    “,,,the cost of the book is thirty-five dollars plus ten dollars for mailing costs. (Total forty-five dollars).
    Check should be made payable to Missouri S&T and mailed to me at:
    (Professor) Gerald Cohen
    Dept. of Arts, Languages & Philosophy
    Missouri University of Science & Technology
    Rolla, MO 65402

    This is a limited edition (80 copies). More
    may be printed if justified by demand.”

Comments are closed.