The Etymology Of 'Dude'

Image: iStock

It seems like everyone has different head canon for the word "dude". Did it come from England? Was it about drifters in the Wild West? Thanks to a 2013 study, we have a better idea.

About three different theories were flung around this office last week, all wildly different. I had always thought it was a Wild West pejorative for someone from another town, perhaps a drifter. That might be my Texas upbringing, and being exposed to "dude ranches".

Hell, there was even a TV show about them. If you're in for a super-strong dose of 90s nostalgia, check it out:

Now, "Dude" - that's a name no one would self-apply where I come from. Urban dictionary, which is the ultimate source of uncontested truth, says a "dude ranch" is a ranch where the owner has hired other people to do the work — which seems in line with the classic idea of it referring to someone lazy, or some kind of "other". However it also claims that "dude" rose to common usage in England in 1883, to refer to "a stuck up person who dressed overly well."

It's not hard to find places that claim the word originated in remote US places, like this site, which says it was used to refer to anyone not from the Rocky Mountains, and later on, anyone who visited a ranch. Spaghetti westerns probably had a large influence on how the word was viewed, and of course, you know us Americans; we invented everything, right?

In fact, there's an uptick in the usage of the word in the late 1960s, around the time spaghetti westerns became popular:

Image: Google

As for that 1930s uptick, I have no idea.

Interestingly, a 2013 study spent 10 years (and almost 200 pages) finding out the exact etymology of "dude".

According to the Chronicle:

Most of the evidence is from the first half of 1883, when the word “dude” was introduced, defined, and ironically celebrated, sometimes even in verse and in cartoons.

Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen make a publication called Comments on Etymology, which sounds a lot like a zine. It analysed back-issues of 19th century periodicals for use of the word "dude", and came to the conclusion that "dude" came from "doodle", as in "yankee doodle dandy". I'm assured by my colleagues that Australians will understand the reference.

Apparently the fashionable sorts at the time were referred to as "mararonis". A farmer sticking a feather in their cap and calling it macaroni was the "New England Yankee Doodle".

A definition was found in the New-York Mirror from 1883:

For a correct definition of the expression the anxious inquirer has only to turn to the tight-trousered, brief-coated, eye-glassed, fancy-vested, sharp-toes shod, vapid youth who abounds in the Metropolis at present.

There's even a poem from the Sunday Eagle describing a dude. "A weak mustache, a cigarette, a thirteen button vest,a curled rim hat — a minaret — two watch chains cross the breast."

Wow. I don't think I'd do well in 1983. My mustache is so weak.

Certain articles also refer to the dude of 1983 using words like "Immense!" and calling delis "dels", which sounds a lot like how some people today would use the word "Epic!" and unnecessarily truncate "sales commision" to "commish".

It seems like the word evolved from country bumpkin trying to look cool to someone who actually spent a lot on their appearance with little care for things of substance. It all sounds very similar to what we'd call a "metro", or perhaps a "yuppy". And sure, we have our own variations on the word today — his Dudeness, Duder, or El Duderino, if you're not into the whole brevity thing.

Sidebar: Check out Evander Berry Wall, who apparently was the King of the Dudes, at least until Jeffrey Lebowski came along:

Image: Wikipedia

This was after something called the Battle of the Dudes, which really needs to be made into a movie.

There's one problem with the 2013 study, and that is it primarily focuses on American media, which despite its theory of "dude" evolving from "yankee doodle", does little to disprove the claim that "dude" in fact began in England.

The Scottish used the word "duddies" for clothing, and according to Wikipedia, there's an English reference to "dudde" as far back as 1567. Wikipedia also offers another potential origin: The Spanish phrase "lo dudo", means "doubtful", again used by cowboys to describe city folk who didn't know the ways of the West. There's an undeniable mix of culture in the southern states from very early on between the US and Mexico.

All of these origins for "dude" could have happened at the same time, or none of them. Despite a ten-year study, we still don't know if it came from England, the US, or Mexico. The one thing we do know is: No matter how you define them, the Dude abides.


    In Australia it seems to have become popular in the mid 1880s. The word appearing the in press of the time, quite a bit.

    The Evening News Sydney
    26 December 1884

    Is 'dude' a term of reproach? It is evidently considered so by a Mr. Hamilton, of Montreal who
    has brought an action against another person for having applied this epithet to him in a public
    thoroughfare. When the plaintiff was asked what he considered to be meant by the term he gave the following definition of it: — 'A dude is a vulgarly dressed man who tries to dress well and be a gentleman, but can't; a person who carries himself in a loud manner, usually ambles along in an absurd manner, extending his arms in all sorts of shapes, like a person in livery.' Another witness said that 'a dude' is naturally ridiculous ; and a third reported the signification of the word to be one ' who gave undue attention to his outward appearance,' and therefore 'might be supposed to be deficient in brains.' A fourth explained that 'dude' was synonymous with 'masher.'

    Border Watch - Mt Gambier
    08 September 1883

    The Dude.
    " What is the dude, papa ?" she said,
    With sweet, inquiring eyes,
    And to the knowledge seeking maid,
    Her daddy thus replies:
    " A weak moustache, a cigarette,
    A thirteen button vest,
    A curled rim hat-a minaret
    Two watch chains cross the breast.
    A pair of bangs, a lazy drawl,
    A lackadaisy air;
    For gossip at the club or ball,
    Some little past "affair."
    Two pointed shoes, two spindle shanks,
    Complete the nether charms;
    And follow fitly in the ranks
    The two bow-legged arms.
    An empty head, a buffoon's sense,
    A poising attitude:
    "By Jove!" "Egad!" "But aw!" "Immense!"
    All those make up the dude."
    -Philadelphia Press

      Thanks Jayd - your comment has more substance than the original article. Especially given the author jumps centuries quite a bit (1883 vs 1983).

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