Charting the evolution of a gender-hopping, meaning-changing, spelling-flexible word
People fear, loathe, and ignore change. The term “Brontosaurus” lost its official status to the correct “Apatosaurus” over a hundred years ago, but try telling that to a dino-loving kid. Those of us raised to believe Pluto is a planet will be sticking up for that demoted little rock till we’re buried. Recently, the Scrabble world went into a code-4 uproar when it seemed that the rules might be changed to allow proper names. (Don’t worry, folks, the change only applied to a new game called Scrabble Trickster.)
When it comes to the meaning of words themselves, change is even more upsetting. In a terrific article for the Boston Globe, Erin McKean looked at how “guys” is now frequently used to address groups of men and women. She writes: “Whether from a dearth of suitable alternatives or just from habit, ‘you guys,’ if not completely entrenched, is well on the way to being the standard casual way to address a group. Rather than fight that battle, we may want to save some indignation for the next awkward form of address to surface. I’m thinking it’s probably ‘dudes.’ (Seriously, dudes.)”
I know a segue when I see one. “Dude” is a magnificent specimen for discussing language change in general, because its meaning has shifted and shimmied a ton in a relatively short period of time.
Originally, back in the 1800s, “dude” referred to a dandy-ish sort of doofus. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “dude” was “a name given in ridicule to a man affecting an exaggerated fastidiousness in dress, speech, and deportment, and very particular about what is æsthetically ‘good form’.” Later, in the American West, the term came to refer to “a non-westerner or city-dweller who tours or stays in the west of the U.S., esp. one who spends his holidays on a ranch,” and the tourist-attracting, money-making ranches they visited were "dude ranches."
In the 20th century, “dude” evolved to take on a more neutral meaning. The term was adopted in the black community, then as now a prime spreader of new words and meanings. This 1967 OED example reflected the shift in meaning: “My set of Negro street types contained a revolving and sometimes disappearing (when the ‘heat’, or police pressure, was on) population... These were the local ‘dudes’, their term meaning not the fancy city slickers but simply ‘the boys’, ‘fellas’, the ‘cool people’.” In the sixties, the term attracted more coolness as it was embraced by surf culture, and by the seventies, a dude was just a guy.
The dude-slaught gained momentum through the 1980s and 1990s, as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and dude-heavy movies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Wayne’s World, and Clerks helped make “dude” a ubiquitous (and, yep, often annoying) word. "Dude" became a widely used exclamation as well. The interjection sense of “dude” has been spoofed many times in comics and commercials. Here John Swansburg looks at a brilliant Bud Light ad in which the only word uttered is "dude," pointing out the various purposes of the d-word, including “The interrogative dude” and “The deflated dude.”
As for dudes and gender, there is a surprisingly long history of women being dudes—and not just in terms such as “dudette” and “dudine.” The OED records “dude” as meaning “a person (of either sex). Freq. as a familiar form of address” as far back as 1974. This 1981 use is typical: “We're not talking about a lame chick and a gnarly guy. We're talking about a couple of far-out dudes.” But even as far back as 1952, Robert E. Knoll wrote, “Nor do my students believe that a dude must be a man, for a city woman as well as her husband can be a dude.” And in University of Pittsburgh linguistics prof Scott Kiesling’s 2004 article “Dude”—the most recent example of dude scholarship—he found that while “dude” is used most often in male-male interactions, it is used in every possible gender combination, and more among women than in mixed-gender groups. Dude-spouting women share what Kiesling calls the “cool solidarity” that “dude” provides.
In a non-surprise, Kiesling found that men are least likely to use “dude” in “intimate relationships with women,” though they will use it often with close female friends. This confirms the long-held belief that “dude” is not anyone’s idea of an aphrodisiac. Well, unless you’re turned on by wordplay, such as the OED-recorded “dudedom,” “dudeness,” “dudery,” “dudism,” and “dudish”—all used in the late 1800s for foppish fellows—or contemporary spellings such as “dood,” “duuuude,” and “duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuude.”
And then there are the variations of the stammering Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, a sacred text for comtemporary dudes everywhere:
“I am not Mr. Lebowski. You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude, so that’s what you call me, you know, uh, that or, uh, His Dudeness or Duder or, uh, El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.“
Who could complain about the evolution of a word with innovations like that? Only those foolhardy or brave enough to risk the cool-free state Bridges' co-star John Goodman described as "very un-dude."