A WORD IN THE HAND: DUDE
Progress is when dudeism loses the purple suede shoes of pejoration
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
When a friend of mine took up a lecturing position at a university in Baltimore, he described his new home as a place “forsaken by all nine muses”. That might not be entirely fair on Baltimore, but after watching David Simon’s TV series The Wire, I had to conclude that if there were a muse who inspired clear speech, she moved out of the US city long ago.
If the series hadn’t been so good I wouldn’t have made it through the first episode, but I persevered and discovered that in Baltimore you don’t say “hello”. You say “alright”, but pronounce it the way you would if a dentist had both hands and several instruments wedged into your mouth.
I knew I’d progressed when I had no trouble deciphering the sentence said to a vigilante who killed his victim on the pavement instead of indoors as planned: “Dude! YoudinevenwaydogeddamuthfugainnaHOWS!”
Dude is a ubiquitous word. You might think it was made popular by the Coen brothers, whose 1998 movie The Big Lebowski starred Jeff Bridges as The Dude, but every Baltimorean worth her sneakers knows that dude originally comes from “duddies”, an old Scottish word for clothes.
Duddies crossed the Atlantic loch and entered fashionable American circles in the late 1800s, where they were affectionately shortened to duds. And from duds we got dude, which at first had a lot to do with clothing. Interchangeable with the later term “city slicker”, dude was an insult aimed at well-heeled men from the city who dressed inappropriately when visiting rural areas.
Dudeism, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, was at the time a blanket term for “the dress, manners, and social peculiarities of the class known as dudes”. The OED gives this description from an 1883 edition of the Phrenological Journal (a magazine for those who believed bumps on the skull were pathways to scientific understanding): “The dude possesses in his outward appearance and bearing all the attributes of a gentleman, excepting, perhaps, that of manliness ... Why the dude feels any interest in life is not clear – he does not look as if he enjoyed it.”
A dude trudging around a muddy farm in purple suede shoes probably wouldn’t be enjoying life much, poor chap, and his attempts to tiptoe over the manure rather than ruin his duds were probably what caused the “unmanly” jibes.
Dudeism used to be exclusively for men. The female version of dude – “dudette” – popped up in the early 1990s but didn’t really stick. It is testament to the progress of the world, if you ask me, that dude has since become a non-gendered word equally applied to men, women and cats.
Dude has also lost its pejorative associations and softened into a term tossed around affectionately between friends. These days, if a woman wore a dress made of meat to a gala event in aid of animal anti-cruelty charity Peta, you might call her all sorts of things but you probably wouldn’t call her dude.
Dude is not the only word to have cleaned up its act. The Yahoo was originally an ignorant, unclean, loutish humanoid invented by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. It has never satisfactorily been established whether the dudes who founded the company called Yahoo actually knew this or not.