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On this one, etymonline really let me down. It says:

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

However, Google Books research shows prior use in a few cases, including Wit and humor of the age (1880): “There are three kinds of dudes in New York”.

So, knowing not whom to turn to, I ask you: what more can be said of the origin of dude? Why was it first introduced to refer to “devotees of the ‘aesthetic’ craze”? And, how did it later progress in the language?

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The OED online advances the exact same etymology (including the reference to 1883). OED Fail. – Marcin May 6 '11 at 17:08
@F'x: Do you have a link to an 1880 edition of Wit and Humor of the Age? I can only find that quote in an 1883 edition. – Callithumpian May 6 '11 at 20:33
@Callithumpian: link added – F'x May 6 '11 at 20:35
@F'x: Still not sure about that date. Using the search box at your link I can find 1883 within the text, but not 1880. – Callithumpian May 7 '11 at 0:50
@Marcin: I think Etymonline probably got the reference from OED. And while OED's not infallible, declaring a Fail with one Google Books Snippet View's questionable date seems premature. – Callithumpian May 8 '11 at 21:51

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Dude has its origins in what Shakespeare would call a "clothes wearing man".

Dodge's 1901 St. Nicholas, Volume 28, Part 2 cites an even earlier appearance in print: 1876, with common usage beginning as early as 1873.

It goes further to suggest that dude is "undoubtedly" derived from the Scotch duddies (clothes) and that the term was originally gender neutral:

The word dude began to mingle in the speech of the people of this country about the year 1873, but did not make its appearance in print until 1876, when it boldly met the public gaze in the February number of "Putnam's Magazine." The origin of the word has been a question ever since it asserted itself in every-day speech, and its claim to represent a human nonentity in raiment befitting either fool or fashion-plate has never yet received the stamp of authority. The word is undoubtedly from the Scotch duddies (clothes), which crossed into England to become duds or dudes; and the first dude was what Shakspere calls "a clothes-wearing man." In Queen Anne's time he was known as a macaroni, one of the curiosities whom Addison described as "those circumforaneous wits whom every nation calls by the name of that dish which it loves best. In Holland they are termed pickled herrings, in France jean potages, in Italian macaronies, and in Great Britain jack puddings." In a play by Terence, the Latin dramatist, occur these lines:

Ila visus est
Dudum quia varia veste exornatus fuit,

which has thus been put in English:

He seemed a dude, because he was arrayed in a jacket of many colors.

This bears out the claim that dude is from the Scotch word duddies, clothes; and reminds me that the paragraph referred to above as having appeared in "Putnam's Magazine," February, 1876, is in these words:

Think of her? I think she is dressed like a dud; can't say how she 'd look in the costume of the present century.

So dude was once of the common gender; or, rather, there was a dud as well as a dude; whereas in our day the dude is of one kind only, and whether in social converse or in composition is not seldom represented by the neuter pronoun it.

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The earlier reference is acutally of the word dud, but Dodge's discussion on dude was so good I took the liberty of blockquoting it. Hope that's ok. – Callithumpian May 6 '11 at 2:28
@Callithumpian Dodge's description really is good. I tried to steal from the best parts of it and hoped that anyone piqued would follow the link. :) Although I'm not Scottish, I suspect that dud and dude carry the same pronunciation in that dialect, based on the phonology of other words with that sound. It's fun to say with a Scottish accent - doing so takes out a lot of the 'surfer bro' connotation of the word, to my ear. – HaL May 6 '11 at 14:16

In conflict with what is advanced by Dodge, the New Oxford American Dictionary says: “probably from German dialect Dude (fool)”.

I'd like also to point out “The Meanings and Suggested Etymologies of ‘Dude’”, R.E. Knoll, American Speech, 27 (1), 20–22, 1952, from which Kosmonaut provided the following quotes:

By 1900 the eminent W. W. Skeat had become interested in it and suggested, in a long and erudite note in the British Athenaeum, No. 3806 for October 6, 1900, that dude was an abbreviated form of the German dialect duden-dop, a blockhead, which was a common term of depreciation.

[…][Alfred Nutt] thought that dude more likely derived from a hypothetical Low German dutt or dutte."

[…] Wilson had a further suggestion: a Portuguese word, doudo, a simpleton, a fool, might be related to the English word.

[…] Professor Charles Bundy Wilson, professor of German at the State University of Iowa, had found the word dude in Grimm's Deutsches Worterbuch, Vol. II, col. 1497, defined as 'ein alberner mensch, stupidus'.

[…] Mr. Morrison has generously supplied me with an interesting passage from an article in the Illustrated London News, July 14, 1883, by G. A. Sala, the Victorian litterateur and traveler and man about town. Sala writes:

"From another American paper I learn that the just now popular word, dude- meaning 'an empty-headed, languid-mannered young swell, who bangs his hair'-is no foreign importation, but is of good New England parentage. The word, pronounced in two syllables, is a word that has been used in the little town of Salem, New Hampshire, for twenty years past, and is claimed as coined there. It is common to talk of a dapper young man as a 'dude of a fellow,' of a small animal as 'a little dude,' and of a sweetheart as 'my dude.'"

As Kosmonaut puts it: “The author of the article finds the American origin to be the most compelling.”

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Interesting. That first page of that article is tantalizing; I wish I still had my JSTOR access from college. I'd also be really interested in any German sources NOAD is citing to see which etymological elements are perhaps shared. So far, most early sources I've found all state that the word was originally gender neutral, which I was not aware of. – HaL May 6 '11 at 14:23
I should note that the author also mentions that a big dude in Romance etymologies thought that Portuguese douda actually came from English into Portuguese. Also the Portuguese word clearly referred to a person while the original uses of dude in English referred to clothing. So he discounts the Portuguese origin on those grounds. – Kosmonaut May 6 '11 at 14:55

Earliest occurrences of 'dude' in its modern slang sense

The earliest citation for dude in J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) is from 1877 in Frederic Remington, Selected Letters 15:

Don't send me any more [drawings of] women or any more dudes.

A longer excerpt from the cited letter (written by Remington to his friend Scott Turner) appears in the 1988 edition of the Selected Letters [combined snippets]:

[Highland Military Academy]


... I hope you will excuse the blots I got on the upper end of this sheet. They don't mean anything in particular, but I wish you would make some similar ones on your return letter. Draw me a good picture, only one, and I'll be your slave forever. Give us battle between the Russians and Turks, or Indians and soldiers ...

... Don't send me any more women or any more dudes. Send me Indians, cowboys, villans or toughs. These are what I want. ...

Lighter offers this definition of dude:

dude n. {orig. unkn.} 1.a. a usu. over-refined or effete man or boy who is pretentiously concerned with his clothes, grooming, manners, etc.; dandy; (broadly) West. a city person, esp. if new to the West; a guest at a DUDE RANCH. Now S[tandard] E[nglish] ... b. Mil. a soldier newly inducted or arrived [first citation from 1936] ... c. a foolish or obnoxious fellow [first citation from 1967] ... 2.a. a male person; fellow [first citation from 1883] ... b. (used in direct address to a male person; MAN) [first citation from "1877–88] ... c. usu. pl. a person of either sex [first citation from 1974]" ... d. Army. a German soldier [first citation from 1918] ... 3. a fancy or excellent example [first citation from 1919] ... 4. item; thing. [first citation from 1960]

That, at any rate is Lighter's report on the evolution of the word dude. The unfortunately inexact reference to 1877–88 for the earliest use of dude in sense 2(b) reflects the uncertainty of the date when the particular (unidentified) play, by Jack Crawford (who died in 1917), containing the reference was published. Here is the portion of dialogue where it appears, in Jack Crawford, Three Plays (1966) [snippet view]:

Jack: What you want Bill?

Sam: Ugh. Me an scalp.

Jack: Oh, you want his scalp? Why redskin dude, is there any other little thing you'd like? Don't be modest.

Sam: Ugh. Where's Bill?

The second volume of J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang & Its Analogues (1891) has a much shorter definition of dude:

DUDE, *-** (American).—A swell; fop; 'masher.' ... {From Scots DUDS = clothes; [citation to an 1870 occurrence of dud omitted].} Derivatives are DUDETTE and DUDINETTE = a young girl affecting the airs of a belle; DUDINE = a female masher.

The earliest citation in Farmer & Henley to an occurrence of the word dude is from 1883. Farmer & Henley's definition of masher, by the way, is amusingly precise:

MASHER, subs. (common).—1. ... A species of Don Juan in a small way of business: specifically among choristers and actresses. Hence (2) a dandy.

The mushrooming consciousness of 'dude' in the popular press

Notwithstanding Frederic Remington's earlier usage of the term in a private letter, national awareness of "dude" was remarkably sudden and explosive. The trigger appears to taken the form of a "New York Letter in Boston Advertiser." Though the Library of Congress's Chronicling America database of historical newspapers evidently does not include a copy of the relevant Advertiser, it does include newspapers across the country—the Omaha [Nebraska] Daily Bee (March 2, 1883), the Washington [D.C.] Evening Star (March 3, 1883), the Dallas Daily Herald (March 4, 1883), and the Fort Worth [Texas] Daily Gazette (March 7, 1883)—that reprinted the item. It begins:

Late advices from your city announce that you have no "dudes" there. Do you kno what a "dude" is? The name was just given, I think, in one of our daily papers, to a curious specimen of the genus homo which has lately appeared in New York. He is young, thin, pale, often hatchet-faced, almost always narrow-chested and small limbed. His extremely tight trousers painfully accentuate his lack of figure. ...

Within a month, newspapers from Wheeling, West Virginia to Milan, Tennessee to Austin, Texas to Hailey, Idaho to Astoria, Oregon to Sacramento, California were reporting the latest details about the habits of dudes the the New York press could gin up, reprinting satirical poems about dudes, and speculating about how soon local folk could expect to catch a glimpse of this ludicrous figure.

Speculation as to the word's origin was rampant. A article titled "The Development of the Dude," in The Nation (March 8, 1883), offered this origin theory:

When a foreign term is suddenly naturalized we may be sure that there is something in the atmosphere of the place of adoption which makes it convenient and useful. "Dude" is said to be originally a London music hall term, but it has been transplanted here, and its constant use shows that it is for some reason well fitted to take a permanent place in the vocabulary of fashion.

A couple of weeks later, the Brooklyn Eagle—as reported by, among other papers the Daily [Astoria, Oregon] Astorian of March 28, 1883— took a more cautious approach to the question of the term's origin:

The New York correspondent of the Brooklyn Eagle, a sort of "Man About Town," notes the introduction of a new word into the language. It is d-u-d-e or d-o-o-d, the spelling not having been distinctly settled yet. No body knows where the word came from, but it has sprung into popularity within the past few weeks, and everybody is using it.

And the New York Graphic—reprinted by, among others, the Iola [Kansas] Register 0f March 30, 1883—weighed in with this view:

Where the "dude" got his name nobody knows. The dictionaries throw no light on it. The most reasonable theory appears to be that it was given to him by Columbia College students—among some of the classes of which he is said to be quite numerous—in consequence of his languidly drawling out the French "Je-doute" when appealed to o behalf of any positive statement That the "dude" is of collegiate origin appears certain. He is in reality but a copy of the English undergraduate who aspires to be considered a superior intellectual being.


Use of dude in the slang sense of "man or boy excessively interested in his mode of dress" may go back to 1877, but the wonder year for the term was clearly 1883, when various New York newspapers—and one national weekly magazine—seized on the term and wrote about the character it supposedly identified—and newspapers all over the United States picked up the the story (and the slang) and ran with it. Perhaps the closest similar term, as far as sudden journalistic interest and subsequent massive popular adoption go, in the past fifty years is yuppie, although preppy comes close. In both cases a largely unknown slang term burst without warning onto the national scene, becoming the subject of countless sociological analyses and hostile comedic put-downs.

The range of meanings that dude has had over the past 130 years is nicely summarized in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994), but its precise origins remain unsettled. Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003), for example, assigns dude the "origin unknown" label.

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"Dude" appears to have been coined in 1883 for the express purpose of giving a name to a particular style of vacuous dandy or swell who was just then becoming more common on the streets of New York. All of the apparent, earlier citations to "dude" have been shown to be incorrectly dated red-herrings.

It is hard to completely discount "dud" as a possible source (duds and duddies were already words for clothes), there is no indication that it was. The "Yankee Doodle" theory may have merit, but it may be part of a richer "doodle" tradition, including "fopdoodle," Fitzdoodle, and Fitznoodle. The two-syllable "dude" (doody) from New England theory, first circulated a few months after "Dude" debuted, may also be related to "doodle," or may just be a coincidence. The man who appears to have coined "Dude" was an Englishman living in New York City; not a New Englander.

Circumstantial evidence may also suggest that the word was based, at least in part, on the word, "Dodo;" the word "Dodo" was used in the original 'dude' poem as well as several early references. The word, "dodo," took on its current meaning of someone who is stupid right around the same time that "dude" was first used to refer to a certain kind of stupid man.

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