by

Dude!

image4Back in 1883 “dude” would have been Word of the Year. No question.

How do we know? It’s thanks to Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen, in the latest issue of Comments on Etymology.

Comments on Etymology, edited and self-published by Cohen at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, has been characterized (by Cohen’s son) as “a blog before there were blogs.” It’s still like a blog, and it’s still not on the Internet.

Likewise, Popik, Cohen, Sam Clements, and a few other collaborators were googlers before there was Google. They actually searched pertinent back issues of 19th-century periodicals for evidence of the origin and spread of “dude.”

The results appear in the October-November double issue of Comments, some 129 pages devoted entirely to the early days of “dude.” (With 16-point type, fortunately, it’s easy on the eyes.) Page after page reprints primary documents from the New York World, the New-York Mirror, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the New York Evening Post, The Brooklyn Daily Times, the New York Morning Journal, and others, even The Clothier and Furnisher. Most of the evidence is from the first half of 1883, when the word “dude” was introduced, defined, and ironically celebrated, sometimes even in verse and in cartoons.

Thanks to Popik and Cohen’s thorough investigation, it seems almost certain that “dude” derived from “doodle,” as in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The original New England Yankee Doodle, Cohen notes, “was the country bumpkin who stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni; i.e., by sticking a feather in his cap, he imagined himself to be fashionable like the young men of his day known as ‘macaronis.’”

For some reason, early in 1883, this inspired someone to call foppish young men of New York City “doods,” with the alternate spelling “dudes” soon becoming the norm. Exactly what these fashionable fools were like unfolds copiously in the pages of Comments. Here there is room for just a small sample. From the New-York Mirror of February 24, 1883:

“. . . a new and valuable addition has been made to the slang vocabulary. … We refer to the term “Dood.” For a correct definition of the expression the anxious inquirer has only to turn to the tight-trousered, brief-coated, eye-glassed, fancy-vested, sharp-toes shod, vapid youth who abounds in the Metropolis at present. …

“The Dood is oftenest seen in the lobbies of our theatres on first-nights. He puffs cigarettes or sucks his hammered-silver tipped cane in the entr actes, and passes remarks of a not particularly intellectual character on the appearance and dresses of the actresses. His greatest pleasure lies in taking a favorite actress or singer to supper at Delmonico’s or the Hotel Brunswick—places he briefly calls ‘Dels’ and the ‘Bruns’—where he will spend his papa’s pelf with a lavish hand. … ”

Here’s a poem, courtesy of the Brooklyn Sunday Eagle for April 22, 1883:

“What is the dude, papa?” she said, with sweet, inquiring eyes,
And to the knowledge seeking maid, her daddy thus replies:
A weak mustache, a cigarette, a thirteen button vest,
A curled rim hat—a minaret—two watch chains cross the breast.
A pair of bangs, a lazy drawl, a lackadaisy air;
For gossip at the club or ball, some little past “affair.”
Two pointed shoes, two spindle shanks, complete the nether charms;
And follow fitly in the ranks, the two bow legged arms.
An empty head, a buffoon’s sense, a poising attitude;
“By Jove” “Egad!” “But aw” “Immense!” All these make up the dude.

There was a “dudine,” too, the female counterpart, encased in a pelisse. “This garment,” says the Brooklyn Daily Times of July 7, 1883, “you must know, clings very tightly; so tightly as to almost, if not quite rival the effect of the tight pants. The indigent artist dismisses his $3.50 model (nudus), casts his eye through the window and beholds in the ambulatory dudine the human form (such as it here is) fully revealed. It is a garment that encases the whole figure to the neck, narrowing about the heels of the dudine until a decided mermaid effect is produced, and the poor creature must wriggle painfully to get up any locomotion at all.”

How the 1883 “dude” developed into the cool “dude” of today with its favorable connotations is another story, one not ventured on in this issue of Comments. Meanwhile, though, happy 130th birthday, dude!

(For information on Comments, you can write Cohen at gcohen@mst.edu.)

Return to Top