Monday, May 18, 2015

Hey, Dude

People of a certain generation (all of them younger than I am), talk of dudes, by which they apparently mean any male persons. Sometimes I hear young men address each other (and occasionally even me) as “Dude.” So where does this term come from and what does it mean?                         
 Pictured is Evander Berry Wall, known as "King of the Dudes," in 1888 in New York.

Oxford English Dictionary  and Webster’s New International agree that the word originally meant a man who was “overly fastidious” in matters of dress and style; in other words, a “dandy” or a “fop.” It later was used to man any urbanized man, or “city slicker.” By the 1960s the word had crept into Black English and into surfer slang as an alternate way of saying “fellow” or “guy.” Today, it’s generally used in that broader sense, usually in an approving manner, to refer to any boy or man. It also can be used as a verb, retaining its  original meaning, as when someone gets “all duded up” in fancy clothes.

As for the etymology of dude, all the overly cautious OED will say is “actual origin not recorded.” Webster’s is even more terse: “Origin unknown.”

Dude first popped up in the 1880s as a term of mockery directed at young men who kept up with the latest fashions. The general consensus among word sleuths who are willing to take a stand is that it derived from “Yankee Doodle,” the 18th-century song with which the British taunted the uncouth colonists. The term doodle first appeared in the 17th century, from Low German Dödel, meaning “simpleton.” In the song the bumptious “Yankee Doodle” sticks a feather in his cap and calls it “Macaroni.” The Macaroni wig was high fashion in the 1770s and became a synonym for foppishness.

In 1883, according to linguist Allan Metcalf, someone in New York began referring to foppish young men as “doodles,” soon shortened to “doods,” with the alternate spelling “dudes.” In that same year a political cartoon referred to the sartorially resplendent President Chester A. Arthur as “O Dude of all the White House residents.”

Some etymologists believe the first instance of "dude" was in a poem by Robert Sale Hill that appeared in January 14, 1883, issue of the New York World.  Hill supposedly coined the word as a cognate to the extinct bird known as the "dodo."

Another expert suggests the term derived from a sentence in Graphic magazinie of March 31, 1883, which said: “The silent, subfusc, subdued 'dude' hands down the tradition of good form.” Dude, says this expert, is just a shortened version of the word subdued, suggesting a person of good taste.

One final suggestion is that it stems from the Scottish word duddies for clothes, and this theory can point to the use of the word dudde in Putnam’s Magazine in 1876, making fun of the way a woman was dressed.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is not quite a dude. But as you can see, he’s working on becoming one:

            I’m trying hard to be a dude,
            And prove I have blue blood;
            Just look at me and you’ll conclude,
            I’m almost one; i.e. a dud.

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