March 29, 2012

Hey Dude!

Slang rarely has staying power. That is part of its charm; the young create it, and discard it as soon as it becomes too common.
Slang is a subset of in-group language, and once that gets taken up by the out-group, it’s time for the in-crowd to come up with something new. So the long life of one piece of American slang, albeit in many different guises, is striking. Or as the kids would say, Dude!
Though the term seems distinctly American, it had an interesting birth: one of its first written appearances came in 1883, in the American magazine, which referred to “the social ‘dude’ who affects English dress and the English drawl”.
The teenage American republic was already a growing power, with the economy booming and the conquest of the West well under way. But Americans in cities often aped the dress and ways of Europe, especially Britain. Hence dude as a dismissive term: a dandy, someone so insecure in his Americanness that he felt the need to act British. It’s not clear where the word’s origins lay. Perhaps its mouth-feel was enough to make it sound dismissive.
From the specific sense of dandy, dude spread out to mean an easterner, a city slicker, especially one visiting the West. Many westerners resented the dude, but some catered to him. Entrepreneurial ranchers set up ranches for tourists to visit and stay and pretend to be cowboys themselves, giving rise to the “dude ranch”.
By the 1950s or 1960s, dude had been bleached of specific meaning. In black culture, it meant almost any male; one sociologist wrote in 1967 of a group of urban blacks he was studying that “these were the local ‘dudes’, their term meaning not the fancy city slickers but simply ‘the boys’, ‘fellas’, the ‘cool people’.”
From the black world it moved to hip whites, and so on to its enduring associations today—California, youth, cool. In “Easy Rider” (1969) Peter Fonda explains it to the square Jack Nicholson: “Dude means nice guy. Dude means a regular sort of person.” And from this new, broader, gentler meaning, dude went vocative.
Young men the world over seem to need some appellation to send across the net at each other that recognises their common masculinity while stopping short of the intimacy of a name. It starts in one country or subculture, and travels outwards. Just as the hippies gave us “man”, and British men are “mate” to one another, so, by the late 1970s or early 1980s, “dude” was filling that role. And all three words are as likely to go at the start of the sentence as the end.
Sean Penn’s surfer-stoner in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982) says “Make up your mind, dude.” By 2000, the
 vocative use and whiff of stoner culture was firm. The title line of “Dude, Where’s My Car?” is spoken by a character waking up from a big night out.  Also in 1998, “The Big Lebowski” gave us the most lovable dude yet: Jeff Lebowski, the role that relaunched Jeff Bridges’ career. “The Dude”, as everyone calls the stoner Lebowski, is being lectured by a rich old man of the same name. The Dude finally snaps: I am not “Mr Lebowski”. You’re Mr Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that's what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing.

With his bathrobe and his milk-soaked moustache, the Dude had come a long way from the east-coast dandy of the 1880s.

Now “Dude!” is mainstream—and no longer just for dudes. Young “dudettes”, as women could once be called, routinely call each other “dude”. And even married couples do it. The first time I heard it leap the gender divide, it was startling; now I find it sweet, somehow even more intimate than “baby”, showing the couple as friends, not just lovers.
I knew it's journey was complete when a tiny urban hipster at the library was trying to grab my attention. “Dude!” she said, “you’re doing it wrong.”  At first I wanted to say, “I’m not a dude.” But something stopped me. Dude is now all about solidarity. She just called me “dude!” and I smiled.


frenchtoast said... weekend Dude? Back! Back!Back! I don't know you, woman!

Mona said...

Dude! Dude.
Dude? Dude!
Dude. Dude.

Modern male communication...

(Except dudettes in Los Angeles, of course.)

SvO said...

She always thought
it was fun to drag
down the road
and twist and turn
and end up somewhere different.

Diddy-up, Duddette.

your gaggle of fans said...

Oh, the usual.
We bowl.
We drive around.
We have the occasional acid flashback.
The Vitruvian Dudes a.k.a. …

Karen (DB) said...

"Super Dudes" the main cast:
Sylvester Stallone
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Jason Statham
Dolph Lundgren
Randy Couture
Scott Adkins
Terry Crews
Bruce Willis
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Jet Li
Chuck Norris
…The Expendables (fer sure)

Anonymous said...

Dudeists of the world unite!
Come join the slowest-growing religion in the world – Dudeism. An ancient philosophy that preaches non-preachiness, practices as little as possible, and above all, uh…lost my train of thought there. Anyway, if you’d like to find peace on earth and goodwill, man, we’ll help you get started. Right after a little nap.