But it wasn’t always this way. The word “dude” has a much richer history than one might imagine; it’s been used as slang with a variety of meanings since the late 1800s.
Given today’s connotations of a dude as someone who isn’t overly concerned with anything but the surf, his skateboard, and his weed, a “dude” used to be a term reserved for men who were seen to be overly concerned with fashion, similar to a dandy.
The term was later applied to city men who struck out for the Wild West without much of a clue how to get there. The term “dude ranch” comes from this period, as dude ranches have slicker amenities than a ranch would for a real, rough and tumble cowboy.
And now today, a dude is a particularly laid-back version of a bro.
The curiously evolving nature of the word piqued the interest of the etymologists Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen, who have been searching through 19th-century periodicals for years, amassing the world’s largest collection of citations of the word “dude,” in an attempt to identify the word’s origin.
Their research led them to a surprising source: the old Revolutionary War-era song “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Specifically, the line “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” was the genesis of “dude.”
How? In the late 1800s, a “macaroni” was another name for a dandy in Great Britain. Macaronis were called such because they would come back from continental European trips dressed to the nines, sipping tea with their pinky fingers up, and raving about a foreign (Italian) dish called macaroni. (One is reminded of Mark Twain’s writing in the same time period: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.”)
When the poor Yankee (American) macaroni imitator stuck a feather in his cap, it only made sense for those whispering about his airs behind his back to shorten Doodle to “dood.” After the “dood’s” first appearance in 1883, the spelling quickly mutated to become “dude,” as it has remained ever since.
But the dude has morphed quite a bit since its nattily dressed origins. In the 20th century, the dude became an Easterner attempting to prove his masculine bona fides in the Wild West via cowboy boots and a cowboy hat—the dandy on the ranch (which would soon become the “dude ranch.”)
In the 1960s, surfers in California adopted the terminology as a term of endearment. And by the end of the 20th century, the word had gone mainstream, appearing in movies such as The Big Lebowski (the titular character being named “The Dude”) and culminating its ascent into popular culture with the 2000 Ashton Kutcher stoner hit Dude, Where’s My Car?
And as for the word’s meaning in the future? As its past goes to show, only time will tell.