Dude, by now, is a word that transcends surf. From the coasts to the Midwest, Australia to the UK, usage of the word has become ubiquitous among English speaking youth across the globe.
And yet, for a word so inextricably linked to surfing, it’s one whose origins might come as a surprise. It’s not a word born out of coastal surf culture in any way. Try instead New York City in the late 19th century.
In 2013, researchers published the results from a decade-long study, amassing some of the earliest references of dude in the English language.
Their conclusion? That dude derives from “doodle” as in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
You know the jingle: “… stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.” Apparently some Brits at that time would travel through Europe and return somewhat pompous with a taste for finer clothes and foods, including macaroni. They came to be called “macaronis.”
According to the authors of the study, the Yankee Doodle, “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.'”
As it happpens, New Yorkers shortened doodle to “dood,” and later “dude.”
Here’s a taste of what a NYC “dude” looked like in 1883, courtesy of the New-York Mirror:
“. . . 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. … ”
Can you sense the 19th century loathing? Sounds like the 1880s version of the hipster.
The word quickly spread to Canada and Australia. Here’s a news clipping from the Sydney Evening News on December 26, 1884:
“Is ‘dude’ a term of reproach? It is evidently considered so by a Mr. Hamilton, of Montreal who has brought an action against another person for having applied this epithet to him in a public thoroughfare. When the plaintiff was asked what he considered to be meant by the term he gave the foliowing definition of it: — ‘A dude is a vulgarly dressed man who tries to dress well and be a gentleman, but can’t; a person who carries himself in a loud manner, usually ambles along in an absurd manner, extending his arms in all sorts of shapes, like a person in livery.’ Another witness said that ‘a dude’ is naturally ridiculous ; and a third reported the signification of the word to be one ‘who gave undue attention to his outward appearance, and therefore might be supposed to be deficient in the brains.'”
Later, during the westward expansion of the United States, dude came to refer to wealthy city dwellers from the east who were unfamiliar with a more agrarian lifestyle. Dude ranches became popular ways in the early 1900s for such people to experience the Wild West.
But how, then, did the word ultimately become so ensconced in surf culture? That much is unclear.
A 2013 article in The Atlantic offers some explanation:
“The contemporary use of dude developed in the Pacific Coast surfing culture of the early 1960s, it entered mainstream popular culture in the early ’80s, and it’s persisted, until recently, along the same basic lines.The contemporary use of dude developed in the Pacific Coast surfing culture of the early 1960s, it entered mainstream popular culture in the early ’80s, and it’s persisted, until recently, along the same basic lines.”
Still, details as to how and why that happened are sparse.
Whatever the reason, today the exaggerated, drawn out “duuuuuude,” has left an indellible mark on anyone and everyone associated with the sport. For better or worse.