By Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen
Reprinted from Comments on Etymology, April 1997, Vol. 26, #7
Appears monthly October-May; Cost: $13.00 per year (Libraries, Institutions: $17.00 per year)
Edited by Gerald Cohen Department of Applied Arts and Cultural Studies University of Missouri-Rolla, Rolla, Missouri 65401
An etymology may be emerging for dude as well as clarification on the term prior to 1883; an 1883 article writes:
The word pronounced in two syllables as if spelled “dood-y” has been in occasional use in some New England towns for more than a score of years. It was probably bom as a diminutive of dandy and applied to the feeble personators of the real fop. [Recently] the name, now generally sounded to rhyme with rude, has been applied to one who, in addition to the characteristics we have described, makes a feeble attempt to imitate the manners of some effeminate young nobleman ….’
The one clear pre-1883 attestation of dude is in a military context (Mulford 1879, referring to soldiers spiffily dressed for parade). And if a second pre-1883 attestation turns out to be valid (Remington’s supposed 1877 letter), that too would be in a military context; Reminton was at that time in a military academy.
Dude, in any case, was a lexical novelty for most Americans when it burst on the scene in 1883. Any alleged pre-1883 attestations deserve close scrutiny to be sure their dating is valid.
MORE MATERIAL FOR THE STUDY OF DUDE
AN 1883 ARTICLE ON DUDE SUGGESTS IT DERIVES FROM AN OCCASIONALLY USED DOODY. A VARIANT OF DANDY
Although the currency of dude is clearly traceable to an 1883 poem by Robert Sale Hill, the etymology of this term has remained unclear. An article in the May 1883 issue of Clothier and Furnisher may provide the key, however: dandy > doody (occasional use in some New England towns) > dude.
Doodv/dandy. if they were really variants, might be parallel to colloquial forms such as all rooty/all righty, cigaroot/cigarette. skidoodle/skedaddle. Rogert Wescott has treated oo variants in several articles and has given the name ‘ooglification’ to the formation of such variants. Presumably, too, doody sounded a bit childish, which probably limited its spread.
Here now is the 1883 article, which Barry Popik drew to my (G. Cohen’s) attention.
From Clothier and Furnisher. May 1883, vol. 13, no. 10, pp. 27-28:
DEFINITION OF THE WORD DUDE
‘In answer to a correspondent, the editor of the New York Journal of Commerce says that it is impossible to give an “exact definition” of the word “dude” that shall express the various ideas in the minds of those who use it. It is not exactly slang, but has not rooted itself in the language, and has not, therefore, a precise and accepted meaning. The word pronounced in two syllables as if spelled “dood-v” has been in occasional use in some New England towns for more than a score of years. It was probably born as a diminutive of dandy, and applied to the feeble nersonators of the real fop. It was employed to describe a young man who had nothing particular m him but an alimentary canal, but who was very careful of his exterior adornment, especially in the tie of his cravat, the selection of his watch chain and appendages, the curl of his hair, and the fit of his trousers; one who eschewed not only all useful occupations, but also any violent exercise- who was too languid in his manner to speak with anything but a drawl or a lisp; who affected special refinement, but lacked the chief essentials of manliness. In the last year or two the name now generally sounded to rhvme with rude. has been applied to one who, in addition to the characteristics we [p. 28] have described, makes a feeble attempt to imitate the manners of some effeminate young nobleman about whom he has read in a foreign novel, but turns out to be only an emasculated penny edition of the despicable character he is trying to copy. The name is doubtless applied in familiar speech and in the press to some who have not all the essential features we have drawn; whatever may be the variations, there is one attribute common to all –they exist without any effort to recompense the world for their living.”
A SKEPTICAL LOOK AT TWO OR THREE PRE-1883 DATINGS OF U.S. DUDE
With excellent research, attorney/word sleuth Barry Popik has traced the currency of dude to an 1883 poem of Robert Sale Hill. And as the term burst on the scene, the reactions of several newspaper writers indicate clearly that it was a novelty; even the spelling was uncertain (dood vs. dude)…
 (B. Popik): my underlining. The remark points to a recent origin of dude.
 (B. Popik) my underlining.
 (B. Popik) No. Make that the last month or two.
 (B. Popik) my underlining.