A Dude Story

Matt Prell

Rinnnnng rinnnng rinnnng. That was the sound of the alarm clock going off to wake me and my roommate for our five o’clock football lift. I clambered out of bed to hit the alarm and greeted Clay.

“Good morning, dude.”

“Good morning.”

“Duuuuuuude, why are we up so early?”

“I hate morning lifts, I’m so tired.”

As seen in the above dialogue, I use the word “dude” frequently throughout my day. I first found myself using the word in elementary school when my neighbor would say, “What’s up, dude?” to greet me. “What’s up, dude?” is now a common phrase I utter when greeting a friend. In the interjectory sense, if something catches me off guard I’ll say “Dude, no way!” The final way I use it is in the sarcastic tone. When imitating a stoner, I may use the word in a phrase like “Duuuuuuuuuude, that was gnarly.” Recently, the word has become of major interest to me because of my overuse of it. I’ve been thinking about dude, watching how frequently I use it in everyday life, and have explored its connotative and definitive history. What I’ve discovered is that “dude” has come a long way to mean what it does today. Over the past hundred years or so, the meaning of the word has evolved in a rags to riches fashion.

Several variations of “dude” have been considered to be the beginning of the word’s use in society. The earliest forms date back to Europe in the 1800s. The word had an opposite meaning to the common use today. One origin theory by W.W. Skeat, an English philologist at Cambridge, suggested that “dude” may have been the abbreviated form of duden-pop, which was German dialect for a blockhead (Knoll 22). Another proposal came from distinguished Celtic scholar, Alfred Nutt, who suggested that the word stemmed from dutte, a word meaning a hypothetical [poor] German (Knoll 23). Before coming to America, variations of “dude” were used as an insult. These hypotheses about the origin of the word would be in line with many current, less flattering meanings of the word. However, it wasn’t until these German immigrants came to America that “dude” surfaced as a common word.

German immigrants introduced “dude” into the mainstream in the 1890s in New York. “Dude” is believed to be the Americanized version of the former two German words. Showing the current definition’s evolution from its early, urban and high fashion heritage, Merriam-Webster still offers one definition of “dude” as “a city dweller unfamiliar with life on the range and a man extremely particular in dress and manner.” The Oxford English Dictionary agrees and states it was, historically, 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’; a dandy.” E. Berry Wall was the epitome of these definitions in the 1890s. William Bryk, writer from The New York Sun newspaper, called Wall “King of the Dudes, beau ideal of masculine fashion… and the first American to wear a dinner jacket, commonly known as a tuxedo.” He was commonly seen in public with “a walrus mustache, gleaming monocle, and high, stiff collars encircled by one of his 5,000 flamboyant neckties.” In the 1890s, his apparel was considered bizarre and inappropriate. On one occasion, he escorted a woman to a ball wearing an ostentatious tuxedo, and the manager ordered him off the floor. He was only allowed to re-enter after he changed his attire. Wall received criticism early on for his unorthodox fashion; he was thought to be flamboyant, irregular, and ridiculous. However, after only a few years of his meticulous dress, others began to follow suit, and by the 1900s wearing a tuxedo was common at special occasions.

These Eastern “dudes” went west to vacation on dude ranches when they needed a break from the city. The OED defines a dude ranch as “a cattle ranch converted to a holiday centre for tourists.” The first ones were started in North Dakota and offered hunting and entertainment to vacationing Easterners. As the years went on, dude ranches offered horseback riding, hiking, camping, and unlimited food to visitors for only ten dollars a week (Rodnitzky 114). Through the adventures at a dude ranch, travelers hoped to have a “Wild West experience.” However, as travelers became more passive over time, the ranches lost their appeal. Instead of going to create their own experience, tourists began expecting the adventure to be brought to them. This shift in expectation caused the dude ranch fad to die out when the ’40s rolled around.

The time period between the 1930s and 1940s brought about a “major dude shift.” “Dude” began being used as a form of address by urban Mexican-American pachuchos and African-American zoot- suiters, known for their clothing consciousness (Kiesling 284). These people were responsible for the reversal of the pejorative sense of the word. Those minority groups took a word associated with negative connotations and began to transform it into a respectable term of recognition. Throughout the 1940s, “dude” gained momentum among certain minority groups to mean “a typical guy.” “Hey dude!” and “Hey man!” fast became synonymous among these groups. At the start of the 1950s, upper class whites interested in African American music and culture also utilized the term (Hill 324). These whites, classified as “hippies,” soon began bringing the word into their culture in everyday use.

By the 1970s, another “dude shift” occurred when hippies introduced “dude” to members of the surfing fad on the west coast, and they adopted the word into their vernacular. The surfing culture is credited with transforming “dude” from meaning “a typical guy” to meaning “a cool guy.” Fast Times At Ridgemont High illustrates how surfers made this shift. The film focuses on the interactions of Jeff Spicoli, an irresponsible, stoned surfer and Mr. Hand, his uptight teacher. Spicoli displayed his coolness through skipping class, arguing with his teacher, smoking weed, and “hitting on chicks.” In one scene, Spicoli crashes the star football player’s car at his high school. The following interaction takes place between Spicoli and the football player’s brother:

Jefferson’s Brother: My brother’s gonna kill us! He’s gonna kill us! He’s gonna kill you and he’s gonna kill me, he’s gonna kill us!

Jeff Spicoli: Hey man, just be glad I had fast reflexes!

Jefferson’s Brother: My brother’s gonna shit!

Jeff Spicoli: Make up your mind, dude, is he gonna shit or is he gonna kill us?

This film demonstrates the pop culture influence on the word. The use of “dude” in a comedic movie caused a spark across the nation. When Fast Times At Ridgemont High aired, people who had never seen a beach before began associating “dude” with positive connotations. The connotations associated with the term were a sense of cool solidarity and rebellion among young men. Therefore, this term became prevalent as these young men navigated mature masculinity, strict heterosexuality, and nonconformity (Kiesling 2).

Once the term became commonly accepted, “dude” began to include both genders. Even though “dude” was most frequent in male-male interactions, self-reporting students in a 2002 language and gender class at the University of Pittsburgh claimed it was not limited to that. The study concludes that “men report that they use dude with women with whom they are close friends, but not with women whom they are intimate” (Kiesling 283). This phenomenon may have been due the fact that “dude” was used in a more relaxed environment. This claim is supported by a 2002 Pittsburgh study. In the study, students also reported that they were “least likely to use the word with parents, bosses, and professors” (Kiesling 284). Similarly, “dude” wouldn’t be used around a girl that needs to be impressed because it wouldn’t achieve its desired effect. Therefore, the Pittsburgh study reinforces the reasoning that dude can be associated with a sense of masculinity. When a guy calls his close girlfriend “dude,” it can be assumed that their relationship is platonic, so “dude” is appropriate because he views her as a “guy friend.”

The 1980s brought about the final shift in the meaning of “dude.” Young people began using it as an exclamation of delight. In this sense someone may have said, “Dude! I passed contemporary music history!” By the mid-1980s, it was also being used as an exclamation of disappointment. Someone may have stated, “Dude… these waves are whack today.” At the same time of this shift, television networks began incorporating the word into shows targeted at young audiences. When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aired on TV, the dialect they used was designed to grab the attention of young children. Terms like “cowabunga,” “gnarly,” and “dude” were ceaseless throughout episodes. By the 1990s and early 2000s, comedies made for older audiences including The Big Lebowski and Dude, Where’s My Car, also made use of the word. In The Big Lebowski, the lead character, Jeff Lebowski, exemplifies a “chill” attitude even in extreme circumstances, while always insisting that everyone refer to him “The Dude.” In Dude, Where’s My Car, after a wild night out, Jesse Montgomery (Ashton Kutcher) and his friend were too hungover to remember where they parked the car. In the moments after waking, they look at one another and ask, “Dude, where’s my car?” These pop culture references to the word helped circulate it around the nation. It didn’t take long before the word infected vocabularies at a rapid rate. The use of “dude” in pop culture shifted the meaning of the word a third time, and without the publicity, there may not have been enough exposure to influence this shift.

In one short century, “dude” went from meaning a fool, to a city dweller, to a companion, and finally to a “cool guy.” It is now used as an exclamation as well. With that knowledge, who is to say that “dude” will not undergo a fourth shift in meaning? Is it already upon us and we haven’t realized it yet? That may be the case. “Dude” is expanding its applicability in the population and can be used to fill in the same way a curse word can. Though “dude” is not used for a filler as commonly as curse words, it has the advantage of being less offensive and thus, more common in pop culture. In the future we may see “dude” used as a filler word when absent-minded people cannot think of something better. Considering the word originally meant a block-head and has risen to the popularity it has today, it seems nothing is out of the realm of possibility.

Works Cited

Bryk, William. “King of the Dudes.” New York Sun. 22 2005: 1. Web. 4 Nov. 2012.

“Dude.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2012. Web. Nov. 2012.

“Dude.” TheOxfordEnglish Dictionary.com. Oxford English Dictionary, 2012. 4 Nov. 2012.

Heckerling, Amy, dir. Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Perf. Sean Penn. 1982. Film. 22 Mar 2013.

Hill, Richard. “JSTOR.” JSTOR. 69.3 (1994): 321-327. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

Kiesling, Scott F. “Dude.” American Speech 79.3 (2004): 281-305. Project MUSE. Web. 4 Nov. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.

Knoll, Robert. “The Meanings and Suggested Etymologies of Dude.” American Speech. 27.1 (1952): 20-22. Web. 3 Nov 2012.

Leiner, Danny, dir. Dude, Where’s My Car?. Perf. Ashton Kutcher. 2000. Film. 22 Mar 2013.

Rodnitzky, Jerome. “The Dude Ranch in American Life.” Arizona and the West. 10.2 (1968): 111-126. Print. 4.

Instructor’s Memo

Each semester I have taught English 100 I have taught “Bitch” by Beverly Gross. I think it is a great example of how to build context, how to let one curious moment become an extended exploration of an idea, or in her instance, a word. In conjunction with this essay, I ask the students to write a review of a word they use frequently but haven’t really considered why. For some it’s an expletive and for others it’s an abbreviation or even an invented phrase that to most people would be illogical. Matt’s essay, “A Dude Story” is the product of this particular assignment, as it examines the history and current use of the word “dude.”

Matt’s process with this essay started with a two-page short writing assignment. This initial rough draft was a good way for Matt to explore a few ways the word is used, and how voice inflection can change how meaning is made. This brainstorming draft allowed these ideas to germinate and gave Matt time to consider if there was more he wanted to explore and if there was enough research in which to delve.

After deciding to extend his draft into a full essay, Matt and I discussed how he might look to the Gross essay as a sort of guide. We went through the structure of Gross’ “Bitch,” in particular how she presents definitions and then unpacks their impact in how the word is used by speakers and received by listeners. I thought, at least to start, this would a useful approach for Matt, as it would lead him to research “dude” in various dictionaries and other secondary texts. Based upon his reaction, I think Matt was surprised by how much he found on the word, as he discovered entire stages and stories connected to the word’s connotations throughout history. It was through these stages that Matt was able to move from structure of Gross’ essay to what he would use for this particular piece.

One of the challenges for Matt during his writing process was trying to incorporate academic analysis while not losing sight of the obvious “lightness” and humor of the topic. Though the discussion of his own use of the word was quite funny, the most humorous moments in this essay often involved the definitions and the research itself. There was no need to force the humor, as the historical analysis itself was, at times, hilarious. Readers who expect research, especially the dictionary, to be staid and lifeless, will be pleasantly surprised by this essay.

Along with the moments of humor, I enjoy that this essay does more than simply restate definitions. Because Matt, similar to the Gross essay, begins with a curious first-person voice, the entire essay takes on a tone of discovery. The reader is learning the stories and stages, it seems, at the same time as the writer. This “discovery” process contributes to the success of the essay. As a reader, I’m more compelled to invest in an essay when I feel a sense of camaraderie with the voice and structural pull of the writing.

— Josh Kalscheur

Writer’s Memo

Growing up in the 21st century and having a childhood that involved five of my best guy friends sleeping over every weekend, “dude” quickly infected my vocabulary as I attempted to stress my “coolness” with them. Our course gave us the opportunity to research the history of a word we overuse. Upon receiving the paper prompt, my eyes lit up when I saw the opportunity to write the philology of “dude.” For me, this essay presented a chance to learn the origins of a word that played a huge role in my childhood, as well as write something that was fun for readers who share my overuse of the word “dude.”

I approached this essay with a laid back attitude and wrote a historical account. This was a fun topic to write about, and I didn’t need to stress over it. Throughout the beginning processes of the paper, I debated whether I should present the information chronologically or in reverse order. I eventually decided to start with the origins of the word because otherwise the reader would be piecing the information together like a puzzle. The research aspect was grueling, but proved to be highly interesting; researching topics such as “dude ranches” and The Big Lebowski was pretty comedic.

The initial draft of my essay is what I would call a lousy first draft. For this paper, I didn’t use an outline, but took the jumbled ideas in my head and started putting them on paper in any order. Once I got a couple of ideas down, I started reworking them into a reasonable order. This proved to be the easiest way for me to write as the semester went on. One of the aspects I struggled with while writing this paper was matching my word choice to my multiple audiences, and to the theme of the essay. This essay was intended to be informative and specific enough for faculty, but also entertaining for a young audience. Therefore, it was tough finding the right balance of professional and colloquial language.

The peer revision process was critical to improving these areas I was struggling with in my paper. I wrote four drafts of my paper before turning in my final copy, and each draft suggested something I could improve upon. It was a sobering process, and I didn’t always agree with what my peer reviewer suggested. Still, I found that when I first began writing this essay, I found that much of my writing included “clutter.” Peer editing helped me identity words, phrases, and ideas that not necessary. I also used phrases like “this is the reason why” that could easily be abbreviated, and sometimes I had left my references ambiguous—for example, not always explaining what “this” is. Between listening to lots of peers’ advice and finding clutter in my own writing, I am much more confident now that I can find some of these issues on my own.

Upon preparing for publication, I met with my professor for additional editing. My paper, for which I had already written four drafts, was filled with suggested corrections once again. One concept writing this paper has taught me is that no matter how perfect you think the paper is, there is always something that can be improved.

I took a risk writing this paper because I felt strongly about my topic and had fun writing about it. My goal was to fulfill the assignment in a fresh way, making it an easy read for my professor as well as the intended audience. There were some instances in which I listened to the questions raised by my peer reviewers, but chose not to follow their specific recommendations because they might have changed the style to something that didn’t match the theme. In the end, I like to think my risk paid off and I wrote a strong story of an idea.

— Matt Prell

Student Writing Award Honorable Mention: Explanatory Essay



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

English 100 Course Readings Copyright © 2019 by Matt Prell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.