The greatest Dude of all is without question Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski. But when did the word dude become a title to aspire to?
When I was growing up, dude was a word to denote a somewhat prissy man concerned with nice clothes and clean fingernails. We even used the word as a verb:
Well, look at you in that fancy outfit! You’ve really duded up for the occasion.
In the context of the Wild West, a dude was an inexperienced Easterner or European being introduced to the rougher manners of the frontier.
Once the West was tamed, the “dude ranch” came into being: a working ranch that catered to guests who wanted to play at being cowboys and could pay well for the privilege.
The OED defines dude as “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.’”
The first documented use of the word is from 1883. The OED citations indicate that it originated as American slang to describe young men who affected the dress, manners, and speech of an English gentleman.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says that dude may derive from Yankee Doodle, a plausible idea, considering the lyrics of the song:
Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his hat,
And called it “macaroni.”
Macaroni was mid-18th century British slang for an Englishman who affected Continental fashions and behavior, incurring the ridicule of fellow citizens who valued “plain Englishness.” The American dude affected what to Americans were overly fastidious British mannerisms.
According to Online Etymology Dictionary, dude to mean fellow, chap, buddy, guy, individual, etc. was in use by 1966, “originally in Black English.” Google Ngram Viewer shows the use of dude rising precipitately from the 1960s to the present.
Dudette as the feminine of present-day dude is a recent surfer slang coinage dating from the early 1990s. Its existence is not yet acknowledged by OED, M-W, or the Ngram Viewer. Feminine forms existed for the earlier dude as well: dudine and dudess.