‘Take it easy, Dude,’ Sam Elliott says to Jeff Bridges in a scene in The Big Lebowski. Dude is how Bridges’ character in the film likes to be known (‘that or His Dudeness, or Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing’); more commonly it’s a synonym for man or buddy. In the 19th century, though, dude meant something more specific. I’ll do the whole brevity thing to summarize how it arose and developed.
Dude started off as a word similar to dandy, referring mockingly to ‘a man who cares a lot about his appearance and always wears fashionable clothes’. An early citation in the OED refers to ‘highly perfumed town dudes wearing creased pants’. This led to the phrasal verb dude up, meaning to dress up or accessorize fashionably: a 1958 New Statesman article referred to ‘country cousins duding up to impress less snappy dressers back home’. From this emerged sense 1a, ‘a man from a city in the eastern U.S. or Canada who goes on vacation to a western ranch’, which is connected to the phrase dude ranch.
Dude then broadened to refer more generally to a person, usually a man – a sense labelled ‘mainly American’ and ‘very informal’ by Macmillan Dictionary. In the 1960s it gained strongly positive connotations: a dude was a man who was cool or admirable in some way. More recently it became a term of address, my dudes, and then an interjection. Dude! These usages spread quickly through pop culture, including the Bill and Ted films, The Big Lebowski, and others. The film Dude, Where’s My Car? played with their ambiguity.
For decades the origins of dude were a mystery, but recent scholarship points to a likely truth. In 2013, on the now defunct language blog Lingua Franca, Allan Metcalf – who wrote a book on the remarkable origins of OK – reported on etymological research that shows it is ‘almost certain’ that dude came from doodle, as in Yankee Doodle Dandy. He was the dude, you may remember, who stuck a feather in his cap in the traditional American song. The abbreviated spelling dood soon gave way to dude, which has been with us ever since.
‘The Dude abides,’ Jeff Bridges adds in that scene from The Big Lebowski, in an off-the-cuff remark that sums up his attitude to life. The Dude abides, and so does dude – though like every word it sometimes changes its clothes.