Dude! An Amazing History
Although this blog post was part of my weekly Fun Facts About English in October, the history is so culturally rich, I thought it worth publishing as one of my monthly educational posts. The Kinney Brothers phonics textbooks featured in the image below are available through David Paul’s online ETJ Book Service.
On a sunny summer day in 1965, I was in the front yard with my twin brother, Bobby, playing on our identical red tricycles. I said to him, “Lookit how fast I’m peddlin’, man!” Bobby suddenly dashed into the house like he had to poop. A few moments later, my mother sternly called out to me through the open living-room window, “Donnie! Stop saying “man!”
The tune of Yankee Doodle is far older than the lyrics, is well known across western Europe, and has been used in Holland for centuries as a children’s song. The earliest lyrics we know come from a 15th-century Middle Dutch harvest song. Though some of the words may seem familiar, the English and Dutch mix is largely nonsensical. The cadence, however, is unmistakable:
“Yanker, didel, doodle down, Diddle, dudel, lanther, Yanke viver, voover vown, Botermilk und tanther.”
The word doodle is derived from either the Low German dudel, meaning “playing music badly,” or dödel, meaning “fool” or “simpleton.” Yankee is recorded in the late 17th century as a nickname; perhaps from the Dutch Janke, a diminutive of Jan (John). Finally, dandy is thought to be a shortened form of 17th-century Jack-a-dandy for “a conceited fellow” and a pet form of the given name Andrew, as in Dandy Andy.
In 18th-century Britain, the term “yankee doodle dandy” implied a fashionable man who goes beyond the pale of reasonable dress and speaks in an outlandishly affected and effeminate manner.
The song Yankee Doodle was written around 1755 by British Army surgeon Dr. Richard Shuckburgh. It was sung by British troops to mock the disheveled and disorganized colonial “Yankees” with whom they served in the seven-year French and Indian War (1756). In defiance, the American soldiers co-opted the song, added verses to mock the British troops, and by the time of the Revolutionary War (1775), turned the insult into a song of national pride.
Doodle to Dude
Recent research of the word dude is owed to Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen who have been combing through 19th-century periodicals amassing the world’s largest collection of dude citations. Cohen’s journal, Comments on Etymology, lays out a solidly supported account of the early days of dude.
In the vernacular of the American cowboy and popular press of the late 19th century, the diminutive dude from doodle emerged as a derisive word, like dandy, for an extremely well-dressed Eastern city slicker who knew little of the rugged lifestyle of the new American West. The verbed version of the word is still familiar in the cowboy phrase “all duded up” for getting dressed in fancy clothes.* Dudedom, dudeness, dudery, and dudism are all recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as terms used in the late 1800s to ridicule our foppish friends. In the early 20th century, dude ranches sprang up in many western states catering to wealthy urbanites wanting to vacation in the “cowboy lifestyle.”
In the 1960s, dude began appearing in surfer culture and the Black community with the meaning “fellow” or “guy,” much like bro in the 1970s. Dude continued its creep into the jargon of young Americans in general throughout the twentieth century.
One of the first known references to its contemporary use is the 1969 film, Easy Rider. In the clip below, Peter Fonda explains to Jack Nicholson the meaning of dude, giving us a marvelous linguistic marker in American pop culture:
From “dandy” to “regular guy” to “cool,” dude was further popularized in American films of the 80s and 90s, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Wayne’s World, and Clerks. The ultimate dude, based on the personality of Viet Nam war activist Jeff Dowd, was played by Jeff Bridges in the 1998 cult film, The Big Lebowski. Bridges’ character, The Dude, inspired Dudeism, a new religion that promotes a rebel-shrug philosophy and the mantra, “Just take it easy, man.”
In 2008, the beer company, Bud Light, aired an advertising campaign in which the dialogue consists entirely of different inflections of “Dude!” without ever mentioning the product name.
As we move further into the 21st century, the female equivalents dudette and dudess failed to acquire any linguistic legs and have fallen out of use. Among many young Americans, dude is now considered a unisex term in much the way guys is used to address a group of men or women. Studies reveal that, though dude is used today in every possible gender combination, it is not used by men to address women in their intimate relationships.
I’ll finish with this Millienial-age gem I found in my research:
“I call my mother ‘dude.’ She doesn’t like it.”
*Not to be confused with the word duds, as in “I got my best duds on.” c. 1300, dudde “cloak, mantle,” later, in plural, “clothes,” especially “ragged clothing.”