30 April 2009

The history of "Dude" and "Dudeness"

A few weeks ago I encountered this comment from a schoolteacher in 1912...
“At first the users of soap and towels in this building were in disgrace or were called dudes..."
and was startled to see the word "dude" used in that era. Further consideration reminded me of "dude ranches" - whence the above photo from the Life magazine archives. It was when I got out the OED to look for an etymology that things got more interesting.

Dude. U.S. [A factitous slang term which came into vogue in New York about the beginning of 1883, in connexion with the 'aesthetic' craze of that day. Actual orgin not recorded.] A name given in ridicule to a man affecting an exaggerated fastidiousness in dress, speech, and deportment, and very particular about what is aesthetically 'good form'; hence, extended to an exquisite, a dandy, 'a swell'.

There follow several citations, including one from North Adams, Mass, in June of 1883:
"The new coined word 'dude' .. has travelled over the country with a great deal of rapidity since but two months ago it grew into general use in New York."
By the time the OED was printed in the 1930s, "dude" had already given rise to dudedom, dudeness, dudery, dudism, dudine [a female dude] and dudish. It's interesting that the connotation of foppishness in dress carried over into the 1940s when that LIFE photo was published, because the label for the picture reads as follows:
Dude Girls of the West. Expert rider Jimmy Rogers sporting fancy, fringed suede, split skirt w. matching bolero jacket as she rears up her majestic mount while maintaining seat on silver-trimmed saddle.
So she's a dude not because she's on a Florida ranch, but because she dresses so fastidiously. I'm presuming then that the "dude ranch" is called such because it is visited by "city folks" who arrive overdressed for the situation and probably affect elaborate "cowboy" gear to the amusement of real ranchers.

It's unusual to see in the OED that a word had such a precisely defined onset without the actual source being known. I would guess (any ideas out there?) that the quick spread of the word probably means that it was used in a movie or a play or a novel that the indexers for the OED never recorded on one of their little paper slips.

That leaves open the question of etymology. Given the clothing-related use of the term, I would have to surmise that "dude" arose from "dud," which is an ancient word for an article of clothing (it's own origin unknown, but dating back to the 15th century). When I was a kid, my parents (Norwegian, German) would tell me to "get your duds on." I've not heard the term used much re clothing since then, but suspect it is still common and recognizable.

I can't leave the subject without at least a tip of the hat to the Big Lebowski for popularizing the word:
"I'm the Dude. So that’s what you call me. That, or His Dudeness, or Duder, or El Duderino..."
It's also self-evident that by the time that movie came out in 1998 the term had absolutely and totally lost its connotation of fastidiousness of dress. Now the term seems omnipresent in commercials, television, and street greetings. But it's interesting to know the background.

Update: I should have checked Wikipedia first. Rather than revise all the above, I'll just append an addendum here. "Dude" was reportedly first used in the 1870s, and in 1883 it was in the Home and Farm Manual (which undoubtedly accounts for the rapid spread that year). There's a good citation re etymology to a book called Words and Their History, which is accessible via Google Books at the link.

Wiki also offers a photo (left) of Evander Berry Wall, a turn-of-the-century multimillionaire who was acclaimed as the "King of the Dudes" for wearing hip-length leather boots. He owned 500 trousers, 5,000 ties, and wore "extraordinary" outfits. He was the first person ever recorded to have worn a white dinner jacket, and once changed clothes 40 times between breakfast and dinner. He died leaving an estate of only $12,608 after having "squandered nearly every cent on pleasure."

Sounds like an interesting guy. Next time one of your friends calls himself a "dude," you might mention Mr. Evander Berry Wall...


  1. Evander Berry Wall is one strange looking dude.

  2. In Deadwood, Al Swearengen repeatedly calls Alma Garret's citified, dandy husband Brom "the dude," so David Milch was apparently aware of the older meaning. Partridge's Dictionary of Slang suggests that dude derives from the Scottish dud, "a delicate weakling; person without ability and/or spirit" with "the semantic transition being aided, maybe, by the dial. v.i. dud, to dress" (as you've suggested).

  3. But don't underestimate the power of Spicoli...

    Fast Times at Ridgemont High introduced the masses to the surfer/stoner culture of the early '80s-- and the word dude. Best pronounced with an elongated U, as in, "duuuude!"


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