The online magazine Slate recently featured a fascinating piece on the etymology of the word dude. Contrary to its modern usage as an informal word for your regular, Average Joe guy, in its original late-19th century context a dude typically referred to an effete, vacuous young man of affected manners and dress. In other words, a dude was a dandy.
The association of the original dude with a dandy is no accident: thanks to research conducted by Gerald Cohen and Barry Popik, we now know that the word dude likely derived from the “Doodle Dandy” in the song “Yankee Doodle.” As Cohen summarizes in the introduction to the October/November 2013 issue (“Dude Revisited: A Preliminary Compilation”) of Comments on Etymology, referenced in the Slate podcast:
‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ produced a blend of dood(le) and dandy to doody in some New England towns prior to 1883, with shortening to dude/dood by 1883. (3)
While exploring the detailed etymological history of dude offers its own rich rewards (see the end of this post for suggested readings, foremost of which is the aforementioned issue of Comments on Etymology), what most intrigued me about Slate‘s podcast was the hosts’ brief discussion of poetry mocking the dude phenomenon that proliferated in late-19th century newspapers. Apparently, dudes were the object of intense ridicule among the general populace, and mocking them in newspaper articles and poems was a common occurrence. In fact, the word dude appears to have been popularized by a poem written by Robert Sale Hill and published in the January 14, 1883, issue (p. 9) of The New York World. The poem, “The True Origin and History of ‘The Dude,'” is available in microfilm through our Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room. A scan of it appears below; larger JPEG and PDF files are available as well.
The middle of the “pome,” as it is introduced in the newspaper, gives a detailed description of the much-maligned dude:
In form and feature rather young—
Somewhat resembling man, sir—
They flit about and speak a tongue
That is not worth a d——n, sir.
Their features, first I would explain
Are of the washed-out order—
Mild dissipation, feeble brain,
With cigarette smoke border.
Their feathers o’er their brow they bang,
Their cheek resembles leather;
Their style, inclusive, is in slang,
The “Strike me with a feather.”
Their father’s cuff supports a hat—
The head just seen between them;
A coachman’s (riding) coat at that
Envelopes all and screens them;
Save just below the coat is seen,
Where muscles ought to be, sir,
A pair of pipe stems, cased in green,
Skin-tight and half-mast high, sir.
To this please add a pointed shoe,
Verandas built around it;
A necktie, either white or blue . . .
Shortly after Hill’s poem was published, articles, cartoons, and dude doggerel began to appear regularly in newspapers. A number of these have been digitized and can now be searched through the Library of Congress’s historic newspapers collection Chronicling America. Examples of dude doggerel published in 1883 and available through Chronicling America include:
- “The Song of the Dude” (The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, March 19, 1883)
- “Confession of a Dude” (Memphis Daily Appeal, April 13, 1883)
- “The Dude” (Daily Globe, April 23, 1883)
- “What’s a Dude” (Omaha daily Bee, April 28, 1883, p. 2)
- “The Beautiful Dude” (The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, May 11, 1883)
- “An Old Song Revised” (Dodge City Times, May 17, 1883)
- “The Dude’s Lament” (The Arizona Sentinel, June 2, 1883)
- “The Dude” (The San Antonio Light Supplement, June 16, 1883)
- “The Dude and the Dudelet” (The Wellington Enterprise, June 20, 1883) – note the poem’s allusions to “Yankee Doodle”
- “The Dude” (The Newberry Herald, July 26, 1883)
You can search Chronicling America yourself to locate additional examples of dude poetry. If you find any poems that make you shout “Dude, that’s awesome!” let us know in the comments below.
Suggested Readings on ‘Dude’
Kiesling, Scott F. “Dude.” American Speech 79.3 (Fall 2004): 281-305. [PDF. Supplementary Materials.]
Metcalf, Alan. “Dude!” Lingua Franca. October 21, 2013. [Link]
Popik, Barry, David Shulman, and Gerald Cohen. “Material for the Study of DUDE, Part 1.” The Dudespaper. [Link]
Popik, Barry, and Gerald Cohen. “More Material for the Study of DUDE.” The Dudespaper. [Link]
—. “More on DUDE #2.” The Dudespaper. [Link]
—. Comments on Etymology, v. 43, no. 1/2 (Oct./Nov. 2013) [Catalog Record]