The word “dude” means “man” and, increasingly, applies generically to any person. (But you already knew that.) The term has been around since the late 1880s, but unlike most words, the etymology of the term was, until recently, mostly a mystery. As recently as 1990, even the Oxford English Dictionary, the go-to source for the origins of words, could only say “actual origin not recorded.”
But now, we have a decent idea of where it came from — even though it took a pair of researchers ten years to figure that out. And what they learned was that it was the 1880s version of the term “hipster.”
In the 1980s, etymologists Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen began poring over old newspaper clippings from a century earlier, looking for clues as to the origin of the term. In 1993, the duo published an article in the journal “Comments on Etymology” with their findings — it’s a 129 page treatise which reprints much of their source material. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be online.)
At the time, the term “dandy” was commonly used to describe someone who was fashion-obsessed — Merriam-Webster defines the term as “a man who gives exaggerated attention to personal appearance.” perhaps the best known example of a dandy is the one who “stuck a feather in his cap” and called it “macaroni.” (That’s a reference to fashion, not pasta; for the explanation how the two are related, check out the “From the Archives” link below.) That dandy was a guy named Yankee Doodle, and the song referencing him dates back to the late 1700s if not earlier. The Chronicle of Higher Education notes the connection between the poem/song and the word “dude:”
Thanks to Popik and Cohen’s thorough investigation, it seems almost certain that “dude” derived from “doodle,” as in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The original New England Yankee Doodle, Cohen notes, “was the country bumpkin who stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni; i.e., by sticking a feather in his cap, he imagined himself to be fashionable like the young men of his day known as ‘macaronis.’”
For some reason, early in 1883, this inspired someone to call foppish young men of New York City “doods,” with the alternate spelling “dudes” soon becoming the norm.
That reason, Popik and Cohen explained, was to make fun of dandies. Dandies were generally met with approval by society, so those who found them shallow needed a way to address these well-dressed empty suits with disdain. The Yankee Doodle character met that criteria — he was a dandy in his own mind, but a fool to everyone else. “Dude,” therefore, originated as a gentle slur derived from “Doodle,” one which cast aspersions on those who would do strange things and claim them to be fashionable — you know, like stick feathers in their caps and claim it was the latest trend. An early definition of the term “dood,” from the February 24, 1883 edition of the New York Mirror (discovered by Popik and Cohen and cited by the Chronicle article), supports this theory:
A new and valuable addition has been made to the slang vocabulary. … We refer to the term “Dood.” 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.
The term, of course, stuck. Over time, it lost it’s less-than-positive connotation and its definition expanded more broadly to include everyone.
From the Archives: Cooked to Perfection: The fact at the bottom is about why Yankee Doodle, having stuck a feather in his cap, called his new look “macaroni,” and what that has to do with pasta.
Take the Quiz: Can you pick the line that follows each The Big Lebowski quote?
Related: “The Big Lebowski,” the movie, a digital rental/purchase. Also, “The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski,” an unofficial handbook if you want to be as zen as the Dude himself. 4.6 stars on 66 reviews.