The Grammarphobia Blog

Dude the obscure

Q: A few of my friends and I wondered if you could address this question: Where did the word “dude” come from? When did people start using it in everyday language to refer to either a woman or a man? Thanks!

A: “Dude,” meaning a swell or a fop or a dandy (in other words, an overdressed, showy person), originated in the US in the latter part of the 19th century.

Its first appearance in writing, as far as we know, was in an 1877 letter by the artist Frederick Remington: “Don’t send me any more [drawings of] women or any more dudes.” This is according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

“The etymology is a mystery,” according to Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. But Partridge suggests it may be from the word “dud” (a weakling or a useless person), with some influence by the word “attitude.”

It’s also been suggested that “dude” may have come from “Yankee Doodle.” Or perhaps the use of “duds” to mean clothes could play a part. After all, to “dude up” was to dress up. A “dude wrangler” was a cowboy on a “dude ranch” who entertained the “dude” tourists.

At any rate, “dude” has changed a lot over the years, and in more modern times has shed its pejorative beginnings.

A 1993 addition to the Oxford English Dictionary has nine citations since 1918 for “dude” in the sense of “any man who catches the attention in some way; a fellow or chap, a guy. Hence also approvingly, esp. (through Black English) applied to a member of one’s own circle or group.”

These days the word is generally used to refer to a male person, though the plural “dudes” has been used on college campuses to refer to people of both sexes, much the way “guys” is sometimes used today.

I hope this sheds a little light, dude!

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