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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

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 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

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