global English language change and slang sporting English

Dude, where’s my definition?

© Magnum / Fotolia.comIs there a single word that you use in normal conversation that can define what sort of person you are? Apparently, I am defined by my regular usage of the word ‘dude’.

I was recently introduced to a friend of a friend. I greeted this person with a friendly ‘Hi Dude, how’s it going?’ The reply came in the form of a question: ‘Are you a surfer or something?’ At the time, I was dressed in a suit and tie and sporting a pair of high-polished brogues. Nothing about my appearance would suggest that I was a ‘surfer’ other than my singular use of the word ‘dude’. The Macmillan Dictionary tells me it means ‘a man from a city in the eastern U.S. or Canada who goes on vacation to a western ranch’, but it doesn’t mean that to me.

I must admit, I use it often. Mostly as a greeting but often as an exclamation:

‘Did you see that gnarly wipeout on TV last night?’ ‘Dude! It was epic!’


‘Did you see those rollers off of the point last night?’ ‘Dude!It was gangbusters!’

I suppose this points out there are other words in my vernacular that are used differently to their intended meaning. To some, a ‘tube’ is a long hollow object. To others it’s the train they catch to work. To me it will always be a wave, where the top curls over to form an enclosed area to surf in.

So dude, do you surf? Do you ride the tail or prefer to have your toes on the nose? Are you a shredder or are you an old school longboarder like me? I ride a single-fin pintail tanker, although the stringer’s getting warped and the rails are thrashed.

No idea of what I’m talking about? You must be a Howlie. Think you know what I’m talking about, but have never ridden a surfboard? That’d make you a Kook. Just starting out as a surfer, then you’re a Grom. Whatever your take on surfing is, you’re all dudes to me.

I have a friend that always uses the phrase ‘dollars and cents’. Yes, he’s an accountant. What about you, dude?

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About the author


Shane Rae


  • Like the surf culture itself, many of the terms associated with surfing have remained unchanged since the sport’s inception. I think you’ll also find that most are used the word over-truly Global English bro!

    By the way ‘Howlie’ was originally a Hawiian term, used to describe anyone not from the islands. You’ve got its current usage correct though.

    Hang loose dude!

  • I like the second definition: ‘used for talking in a friendly or threatening way to a man you do not know’. I wish there was a female equivalent. ‘Dude’ sets the tone nicely for a friendlier, more informal conversation – but I always feel a bit ridiculous when I say ‘dude’ to my girl friends.
    There are so many ways of using ‘dude’: threatening – low-tone, chin down, eyes up: dude. Disbelief – wide-eyed: dude! Disgust/pity – head-shake, eyes to the side: oh dude…
    And then, of course there will always be The Dude – he should come into the definition somehow…

  • Interesting to think that a person could be defined so completely by their regular use of a single word? I’ve not considered that before. Worried, I asked a colleague, and was told I’m ‘clearly mental’, but that’s due more to my ‘turn of phrase and choice of topic’ rather than repetition of a single word. Maybe I’m too fickle with language to stick with one word? It’s my delivery that defines me.
    I think it depends on the person listening too. Regarding the above, to me, I would not connect the use of the word ‘dude’ to a surfer, but to characters in movies such as ‘Bill and Ted’, and ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’ – I don’t think any of those guys were surfers, but were a similar ‘types’ I suppose? ‘Dude’ is an informal address, which most people in the UK would replace with ‘mate’, I think.

  • I live in North America, Canada to be exact. I’ve never been on a surfboard but can say I love the movie Blue Crush, just because I envy how fit the chicks are. As a female, I consider myself neither less cerebral nor more kitchy because I put the exclamation “DUDE!” in the subject line of an e-mail from my work address. I think it reflects an openness and suspends pretention. It’s fun and automatically prompts a smile. At least from people I care about. No one should be defined by the words they use, but rather for their broader attempt at healthy communication. The two are inherently different, I believe.

  • Be careful with this type of thought:

    “I suppose this points out there are other words in my vernacular that are used differently to their intended meaning. ”

    All words are arbitrarily used to represent objects/ideas. We, the speakers, collectively can and do use them whenever we feel like it.

  • Wouldnt it also matter on how you say it so it sounds like duuude more then dude. you know what I mean the only way I can think of why someone could jump from metting someone who said dude and make the leap to are you a surfer Im rambling now but why would someone leap to are you a surfer lol

  • Something about this post made me smile, thanks! I relate the word ‘dude’ to people who live their lives the way they see fit. I’m making a pact to say it more often. Thanks dude!

  • @JPersico

    “All words are arbitrarily used to represent objects/ideas. We, the speakers, collectively can and do use them whenever we feel like it.”

    Hmm, ‘whenever’ yes but surely if there isn’t some intended meaning to words, they just become sounds without meaning? What good is a language if you are the single person that comprehends it?

  • @Amber Bianchi

    I agree with your sentiments. I’d say someone who would make that quantum leap of assumption doesn’t really know anything about surfing at all.

    Possibly the UnDude?

  • @Shane

    “What good is a language if you are the single person that comprehends it?”

    I completely agree with you: if only one person understands it, it’s no good. That’s why I don’t like a lot of poetry and other literature that make me think that perhaps I should have eaten more meat when I was a kid so my synapses would connect as well as certain authors’ synapses do, haha.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that one person using a word doesn’t mean anything, but that is not what we are referring to here; people tend to belittle their own lexical choices, which is what I felt you were doing by saying:

    “words in my vernacular that are used differently to their intended meaning. ”

    A lot of people tend to think slang isn’t real language because it is composed of words that aren’t “real” or, in this case, that are used in ways other than their “intended” meanings. Consequently, they reprimand themselves and think they shouldn’t use it. But, I say, if millions of speakers use “dude” as an interjection, as a vocative (I think), etc, then they can’t be wrong! Right? At least that’s what I think modern day lexicographers believe.

  • I think you may have hit on something here Shane. I’m thinking of a wider issue-that of making assumptions about someone due to their particular usage of English. Think about young folks who actually dumb down their language to identify themselves as being youthful and unconcerned about convention-for example. WW Dude.

  • use the word as a greeting.

    we all started using it more after it became apparent that “dude” is also a camels forskin.

  • @JPersico

    Right there with you on what you are saying. I know plenty of Lexicographers alright. A fair few actually ARE dudes!

    Words are well nang!

  • Haha, great! I’m going to experiement with this on my students. See if any of them over-use words that actually define them in some way. I can think of a few now. The psychology of words. Love it dude!


  • I totally love the term ‘dude’ – it always, always makes me smile. I always interpret it as a friendly term of address. As a ‘Howlie’, and a British one at that, I feel I can’t use it spontaneously to anyone – girl or boy – without feeling a little ridiculous; it’s just doesn’t form a part of my natural northern English ‘idiolect’, which (I think?) is the pretentious sociolinguistic term for the idiosyncratic way we all use language, which is unique to each of us. I agree with Helen that it’s not one word or phrase that defines us; it’s delivery, accent, tone of voice, social class even, how we play with words (or not) that makes up our own linguistic personality. It’s definitely not about one word.

  • In fact, the correct spelling is “haole.” I’m from California; Ventura and Los Angeles to be precise, and while I’m not a surfer myself, I know a bit about the culture. My dictionary defines “haole,” but not “howlie,” although the former is pronounced as you might sound out the latter.

  • Interesting this “dude” conversation. Where I come from in the Caribbean “Dood ” is short for “dou dou”, (“doux” meaning sweet) from French Patois which was once widely spoken in Trinidad where I live and what is now called Kweyol in places like St Lucia and Dominica.
    So lovers would call each other “doud” or “douds” when they feeling romantic.

  • Well dude, I hate to be the first one to break it to ya, but you’ve misspelled “Haole” as “Howlie” and, unless the majority of the surfers in your area are werewolves, you’ll need to be changing that one. Sorry dude! Haole means white guy/foreigner in Hawaiian, and hapa-haole means half-Hawaiian.

  • well … i dont see the word “dude” as a word used only by surfers … i have a lot of friends who are not surfers we usually call each other dude … maybe it was originallly used by surfers but nowadays its use is very spread … the article is nice though

  • My friends and I use “dude” all the time, along with the word “awesome”.

    We use “awesome” so much, even when things are pretty average. We also use “awesome” in place of the word “OK” sometimes.

    “I got a pizza from the supermarket.”
    “Awesome, let’s have it now.”

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