The colorful origins and meanings of the word "dude"

March 13, 2020 | Surfing
Dude: always a cool, laid-back, young man | Photo: Shutterstock

"Dude" is an expression used in various occasions and often linked to the surfers' world. But the word hides an old, rich, and curious heritage.

Throughout the decades, the word "dude" gained a mainstream status, and its popularity spread across the world.

Still, it is heavily associated with urban youth culture and the rise of the street's underground movements.

It is one of the favorite terms for anglophone surfing, skateboarding, and biking communities. But also for drug addicts and street punks.

Dude was originally a synonym for "rags," and later a derogatory Old West term for "dandy."

In the 1930s and 1940s, the word morphed into a more positive meaning, especially within African Americans and Mexican American "pachucos."

Contrary to popular belief, the surfing community only adopted the "dude" in the late 1970s, mainly when the stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli appeared on the big screen in the 1982 box office hit "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

Nowadays, dudes have new rivals. They call themselves "bros."

Surfers: they will always be dudes | Photo: Shutterstock

The Dictionary's Definition

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word "dudes" has three different meanings:

1. A man extremely fastidious in dress and manner - a dandy;

2. A city dweller unfamiliar with life on the range; especially: an Easterner in the West;

3. An informal expression for a fellow or guy; sometimes used as a term of address;

But who were the first "dudes"? The Oxford English Dictionary has an interesting explanation.

"Our earliest records of the word 'dude' are from the late 1800s in the USA," the famous publication confirms.

"These early uses of the term referenced to men who showed ostentatious regard for fashion and style, who may also be referred to as dandies or fops."

"The origin of the word, like the origin of many slang terms, is still somewhat mysterious."

"But it's probably a shortening of doodle, familiar from the American song 'Yankee Doodle Dandy,' which mock the sort of men who were traveling in Europe and returned with extravagant and exaggerated tastes in fashion."

The ditty was originally sung in the late 18th century British soldiers keen to ridicule the American colonists with whom they were at war.

"The same song contains a reference to macaroni, which was another word used to describe the dandies - probably a reference to their new continental taste developed abroad," the famous British dictionary notes.

"This sense of macaroni has been lost to history. However, dude has stood the test of time."

On February 25, 1883, the Chicago Tribune published one of the first "dude" descriptions. Here's the article:

Chicago Tribune, February 25, 1883: one of the first

Dude: Common and Unusual Uses and Pronunciation

As Matt Warshaw's "The Encyclopedia of Surfing" addressed it, "depending on the context, 'dude' can signify surprise, anger, awe, warning, disappointment, puzzlement, disgust, appreciation, commiseration, or greeting; it performs equally well in an ironic or a sincere voice."

Although it is mainly a male-directed expression, there's a less common, yet increasingly used word for women: "dudina."

In 2004, Scott Kiesling, a linguist at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote a paper titled "Dude," in which he dissected the evolution of the famous popular expression.

According to Kiesling, the correct way to pronounce it is "duhd." Some people also say "dood," but it will sound old-fashioned by purists.

We often use the term to greet someone ("Hey, dude!" and "What's up dude?"), to express disagreement, agreement, disgust, surprise ("Dude!" or "Whoa, dude!") and commiseration ("Dude, I'm so sorry..."), but also to show happiness and delight ("Awesome, dude!").

Scott Kiesling also notes that the word is used to one-up someone ("That's so lame, dude.") or confront a person ("Dude, that is so boring.").

It's a flexible word that can be ironic, express sincerity and solidarity.

"Men report that they use dude with women with whom they are close friends, but not with women with whom they are intimate," underlines the linguist.

Solidarity without intimacy.

Today, and despite being vocalized by a broad range of age groups, "dude" is still mainly an under 30s expression.

In fact, parents, teachers, doctors, police officers, political leaders, and clericals - except the ones below - and other authority figures will hardly ever be "dudes."

And the same informal rule applies to criminals, obviously.

Nuns: they love surfer dudes like Joel Parkinson | Photo: Shutterstock

Dudes in Politics

But because all rules have exceptions, we will have people like President Donald Trump, who is a fan of the word.

"We're getting really bad dudes out of this country," he once said, referring to Mexican gang members and drug lords occupying the areas near the US border.

Trump might not have used the word in the best context, but we got it.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Boris Johnson was the first British prime minister to say the word "dude" publicly.

After winning the 2019 Conservative Party election, the extravagant politician delivered a humorous speech punctuated by a subtle twist.

"Deliver Brexit. Unite the country. Defeat Jeremy Corbyn. I know, I know: some wag has already pointed out that 'Deliver, Unite and Defeat [DUD] was not the perfect acronym for an election campaign since unfortunately, it spells DUD."

"But they forgot the final 'E,' my friends. 'E' for energize. And I say to all the doubters: Dude: we are going to energize the country."

Boris Johnson: a dude with a surfer haircut | Photo: Creative Commons

Dudes in Popular Culture

"Dudeism" is the religion, lifestyle, or philosophy inspired by "The Dude" (Jeff Bridges) in the Coen Brothers' 1998 film "The Big Lebowski."

"The Dude" (photo below) was a lazy deadbeat character, but the term has also been used with other connotations, and has become a hit concept in popular culture.

Nearly three decades before, 1969 America road drama film "Easy Rider" was the first to mention the iconic word.

In the movie, Wyatt - portrayed by Peter Fonda - explains to his cellmate lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) the definition of "dude": "Dude means 'nice guy.' Dude means 'regular sort of person.'"

In 1987, American hard rock band Aerosmith released "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)," the first single taken from the album "Permanent Vacation."

In 2000, an American stoner comedy movie dared to add the expression to its title: "Dude, Where's My Car?" was directed by Danny Leiner.

Other blockbuster films like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," "Wayne's World," and "Clerks" also used the word to characterize a cool person.

The Big Lebowski: The Dude (Jeff Bridges, lef) inspired the Dudeism | Still: The Big Lebowski

Bud Light: The Dude Commercial Series

In 2007, Bud Light decided to put all his eggs in one basket.

The American-style light lager beer aired an unusual advertising campaign series, in which all commercials' dialogues used different inflections of "dude."

The marketing stunt used, at least, 16 distinct "dude" usages. The result is hilarious, and also quite self-explanatory.

Another set of Bud Light commercials adopted the four-letter word in a few football-driven ads, but this one's the best.

Dude: The Popularity Chart

If Dude Inc. were a company listed on the stock exchange, it would probably be considered one of the most successful and long-lasting businesses of all time.

Take a look at the performance of the word in the Google Books Ngram Viewer, the online search engine that charts the frequency of the use of a word in printed works since 1500:

By the way: have you ever wondered where the word "surfing" comes from?

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