“Dude:” Thoughts on an American Word

Surfer

Photographer: Mila Zinkova

I am skeptical about claims that American English is “colonizing” the other Englishes. But I will concede one point: the word dude is entirely our doing.

Dude, in America, is a word that lies somewhere between British mate and bloke. Like mate, it can be used in a vaguely affectionate second-person: “Don’t worry about it, dude.” And as in bloke, it can be used in descriptive third-person sentences: “That dude is stressed out.”

In America, when we think of dude we tend to associate it with the dialects of California. In particular, the word seems ubiquitous in several sub-cultures: the California drug culture (“Far out, dude.”), the California surfer culture (“That was a gnarly wave, dude!”), and the crunchy/environmentalist set (“The earth is a living thing, dude.”).  All stereotypes, but with a certain amount of truth to them.

Nowadays, of course, dude is heard throughout America. And I’ve heard enough younger Brits, Canadians and Australians use it that I’m guessing it is starting to plant itself elsewhere.

Like a lot of words in American English dialects, though, dude apparently derives from African American Vernacular English (AAVE), the dialect spoken by African Americans throughout the United States. As per the wonderful Online Etymology Dictionary:

dude: 1883, “fastidious man,” New York City slang of unknown origin. The vogue word of 1883, originally used in reference to the devotees of the “aesthetic” craze, later applied to city slickers, especially Easterners vacationing in the West (dude ranch first recorded 1921). Application to any male is recorded by 1966, U.S., originally in Black English.

It seems, then, that dude entered the lexicon of Black English sometime in the early-to-mid 20th Century, where it morphed into a general term for “man.” Then, like many African American terms, it slowly filtered into the broader spectrum of American English dialects.

Here is what’s interesting, though. Dude is currently used in both African American Vernacular English and “white” dialects like General American. But it’s used somewhat differently in these two contexts.

Among AAVE speakers, I have noticed that “dude” is used far more commonly in the third person. For example, an AAVE speaker might say:

“What’s wrong with that dude?”

But the sentence …

“What’s wrong with you, dude?”

… doesn’t sound right in AAVE. In California or other kinds of Englishes, on the other hand, this question would sound perfectly normal.  This is my own perception, of course, but I’ve noticed that African Americans (who speak AAVE) rarely refer to the people they are directly speaking to as “dude.”

Of course, AAVE has long been known to “disassociate” itself from certain words when they enter “white” English. Terms like hip, jive, and cat (referring to “man”) are all African Americanisms that were completely rejected by the AAVE-speaking community after they found popularity in other American Englishes.  So it appears that the “affectionate” usage of dude may have gone the same route.

Opening this discussion up to the floor, I’m curious if anybody can give me more info about the spread of dude to international dialects. When a Brit or Australian or Irishmen uses dude while talking to an American, is that because the word has actually spread to those countries? Or are these people just trying to “fit in?”

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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31 Responses to “Dude:” Thoughts on an American Word

  1. dw says:

    One point of interest is that, although I usually have /dj/ in “du” words (“duke”, “dune”, “endure”, etc.), I’ve never been tempted to pronounce “dude” with /dj/. This is because it’s a word I’ve primarily learned orally rather than from its written form.

    • trawicks says:

      Interesting, that’s the first time I’ve entertained the notion of the yod being possible in “dude.” Even though the spelling would suggest it! I had a British co-worker a few years back who used “dude” quite frequently, and in retrospect, it was always plain old /du:d/. You can’t find much better evidence that the word has been borrowed from Americans!

      • Rhys says:

        I’m from South Wales and use the word “dude” (as in /du:d/ of course, yod-dropping is a feature of our accent) to refer to the third person. I’d use the word “butt” in the same way as an Englishman would use “mate”. I’d use the word “mate” in a threatening manner.

        “Some dude stole my shoes”
        “Orrite butt, sapnin?”
        “Listen now, mate!”

      • Dave says:

        I know this reply is old, but it’s interesting how you guys are talking about yods in dude and other du words. Yods in du words I associate with Denver. In words like dude and do, it sounds like they’re saying dee-yude and dee-yu to me. From what I’ve heard.

  2. Keri says:

    Cool! I wasn’t aware of the origin of the word in AAVE. Thanks for sharing =)

  3. Okay, I’m going to make a high-brow reference to the Teenage Mutuant Ninja (Hero) Turtles. For Brits of my generation (mid 20s to early 30s) I’d hazard that “dude” was really popularized by that show and its success. If I hear “dude” used non-ironically by a Brit, to me it sounds dated as if they still think it’s the early 9os.

  4. Melissa says:

    And when did “dudette” appear? Is there a British English equivalent to that?

  5. Gwen says:

    ‘Dude’ didn’t just spread to other English speaking countries. I live in the Netherlands and I sometimes hear both ‘dude’ and ‘dudette’, but mostly ironically. I’m in university now, but it first started appearing when I was still in secondary school, like four or five years ago even. Maybe it was around earlier but I was just too young to hear it being used. I’m sure it exists in other countries as well, though. American popular culture is almost everywhere, right. (The Turtles were here as well, because I remember watching them as a kid, but they were dubbed, of course.)

  6. trawicks says:

    @Melissa,

    I think “dudette” mostly derived from the phrase “dudes and dudettes” (i.e. the stoner’s version of “ladies and gentlemen.”) I’ve actually never heard “dudette” used in a serious context, unlike “dude,” which I’ve heard used in life-threatening situations.

    @Gwen,

    I’m guessing the word is used as a joke in a lot of non-English speaking countries. Although facetious usages sometimes have a way of morphing into sincere usages, which I’m guessing might be how “dude” spread throughout much of America.

    @’enry,

    I know, I loved TMNT too when I was a kid. It makes me cringe a little now, but that’s probably more a reaction to the horrible wave of tie-in products that accompanied the show.

    • 'enry 'iggins says:

      Sorry my comment was off topic. I just don’t have anything to add to the discussion because I really haven’t heard people from outside North America say dude before. I wouldn’t be surprised if Aussies said it because surfing is pretty big there I think.

  7. Mig says:

    I think its unironic use is quite widespread amongst my peer group (men in their 20s-40s) in the UK. It sounds like a stand-in for “mate” when people don’t want to appear too alpha or “little England” or want to appear cooler and American? Cf. “bro” and “bud/buddy”. Dudette is not as common and usually used ironically in my experience, mostly in tandem with “dude” as in “dudes and dudettes”.

    • Rhys says:

      Yeah, I’d agree with that.

      I think the word dude has been in decline (in most of England at least) since 9/11. Younger generations tend to be more culturally conservative (although they profess to be liberal) and anti-American than people in their mid-20s to 40s. Over the past decade there’s been a massive rise in English nationalism, indie music, Topman-style fashion and home-grown teenage shows such as Skins.

      American influence has declined and London’s influence has grown. A lot of working class kids (especially in Scotland, parts of Wales and Northern England) feel alienated by this as American culture is generally more accessible and egalitarian whereas a lot of English television/music/fashion is still very class-obsessed.

  8. trawicks says:

    @Rhys,

    Interesting. I’ve never really thought about Northern England or Wales as being more easily swayed by American culture, BUT considering that areas outside of the Southeast suffer as much linguististic mockery as they do, that wouldn’t be surprising.

    @’enry,

    No worries! Posting about the word “dude” is pretty much asking to get off-topic. I even found it to stay on-topic in the original post!

  9. Marc L says:

    I’ve heard dude used in the second person by African-Americans at least since the early ’70s. As in, “Hey dude, wha’s happen’n? And very often I’ve heard it used in that context as a term of misapprobation, although it generally stands in for the more general American “guy’, just as the Brits ansd Aussies would use “mate.”

    • trawicks says:

      Just to be clear, I am speculating here, and thus far don’t have much concrete evidence to back me. But AAVE is aggressively “disassociative,” meaning that words and phrases that were part of the dialect even a few decades ago become rapidly passe. Even the phrase “What’s happenin” that you use above, I would argue, has largely left the speech of younger AAVE speakers.

      The problem is it’s pretty hard to analyze the frequence of these usages, since you would somehow need data suggesting certain terms were common years ago, and another set of data suggesting these same terms are dying out. I’d be interested in looking at a full-scale study of these kinds of words.

  10. dan says:

    Firstly, just wanted to say this is an ace blog, thank you. I’ve learnt a lot from reading recent posts and really enjoyed it.

    Secondly, isn’t “mate” pretty much ubiquitous in the UK? I suppose I’m too old (over 40) to use “dude” unironically, but it just never seems to be that popular among the young Londoners I teach either. Then again most of them probably look to Jamaican/Jamaican-English terms more than older US ones.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, Dan! “Mate” is definitely still the king of jovial “man” words in the UK. I’m curious as to why it’s never entered the US lexicon, since we all know what it means by now.

  11. Neil Midkiff says:

    “Dude” crossed the Atlantic to England much sooner than anyone has so far mentioned. I’m preparing a revival of a 1909 London musical comedy, Our Miss Gibbs, and it has an ensemble of six aristocratic young-men-about-town, labeled the Chorus of Dudes. Their first line is “A fashionable band of brothers are we, you see,” and they explain how their clothes and actions are correct in every detail. So the original sense of “fastidious man” is the one being used here, it seems.

  12. master baetis says:

    Quite a bit of history here.
    But history is always rewritten, and now whenever I hear the word Dude I have a clear picture in my mind, and his name is Lebowski.

    The Dude abides.

    :)

  13. Michael says:

    I don’t know if this is true, but I once read that A Connecticutt Yankee In King Arthur’s Court was the first novel to include the words ‘Dude’ and ‘Hello’, another American word that has spread to other forms of English (and many other languages, as well). (To be fair, it should be noticed that ‘Hello’ existed long before in similar forms such as ‘Alloo’ and ‘Hullo’.) At one point in the book, Twain referred to ‘Dudes and dudesses’, as the modern form of ‘Dudette’ didn’t appear until much later.
    I was rather surprised by the rise of the word ‘Dude’ in my life. When I was young, I would hear the term now and then, always in the third person, but it seemed to fade away by the late ’70s. I even remember hearing a teenager dismiss it as outdated slang around 1980. And then, beginning in the mid-’80s, the word suddenly began appearing everywhere. I’m not certain, but I get the impression it faded away in most of the country, but became more prevalent in California during this time, and then from there it was re-exported to the rest of the US in the ’80s.

  14. JZK says:

    as an english dude I wouldn’t hesitate to use dude instead of mate or whatever.

    My girlfriend is Italian and has a hyper-correction tendency with this word: because she knows that she often forgets the /dj/ in words like ‘education’, she often comes out with ‘dyood’.

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