Dude and Dudette

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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.

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9 thoughts on “Dude and Dudette”

  1. My first exposure to the term was in the David Bowie penned hit for Mott the Hoople. And like all things Bowie this plainly implied something to aspire to, even if the reasons why were somewhat elusive.

    There are some other interesting etymological notes on Michael Quinion’s site that may be of interest:

  2. I once referred to a woman as a dudette, and she told me that that term was diminutive. She was to be addressed as a dudessa.

  3. @ApK: Was she Italian? I think I would stick with that because in Hebrew, most feminine nouns end in an -ah sound, and if “dude” is masculine, I would be a…doodah?? I DON’T THINK SO LOL!

  4. Some dictionary entries for ‘doodle’ state that it may derive from dedeltopf, German for simpleton. Wikipedia states that British troops intended Yankee Doodle as an insult to the colonists. That makes the later meaning, somebody who simple-mindedly imitated European fashions, intuitive to me.

    Thanks to ApK, I had fun chasing down differences between -ess (feminine, from French), -essa (feminine, from Italian), and -ette (diminutive and feminine, from French).

    You can take this or leave it: In the late 1970’s, I worked in television with a gnarly dude who drove to Los Angeles to surf every weekend. One day, he said something referred to both sexes as dudes. That seems like calling a mixed group “guys,” so I called them dudes and dudettes. The dude said, “Hey, I like that. I’m going to use it.”

    Ideas can have multiple origins when their time has come, but from the late ’70’s to the ’90’s allows about the right time for a word to spread amongst suffers. Just for the fun of it, I hereby claim to have coined dudette.

    To round out the discussion, one might mention that “dude clothes” was shortened to “duds.”

  5. Combining 2 articles here (re dudette and suffragette):
    H.W. Fowler objected to the coinage suffragette because it tended “to vitiate the popular conception of the termination’s meaning.
    He’s right in that it is worth noting that the suffix –ette is more often than not wrongly assumed to be feminine, whereas in reality more regularly it is a diminutive while other suffixes indicate the feminine.

    ” He consigned the word to oblivion: “May its influence on word-making die with it!” I doubt he’d much care for our new word dudette.
    As to Fowler’s objection, I think it raises an interesting point. Many of us “prescriptivists” would be okay with informal, colloquial, or slang words and uses IF we were confident that they would STAY that way. But they don’t. English has an exceedingly steep slippery slope where even intentionally bad or humorous terms are instantly seized on by the anti-standards crowd who start inserting it into serious writing and conversation. So, the very lack of standards necessitates militancy for the few that exist. Like bad manners, some linguistic behaviors need to be nipped in the bud. One termite is pretty harmless, but there is never just one termite. And the porch falls off the house.

  6. There was a comic back in the 70s, might have been Tommy Chong, who used the phrase “dudes and dudettes.”

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