Word evolution makes research lively pastime

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Lively conversation is one bonus of working in a busy, small-town newsroom such as the one at The Natchez Democrat.

For me, the bonus is special, as I hear and learn so many things from the bright young generation of journalists with whom I work.

Take the word dude, for example. &8220;Dude, come on in,&8221; the personable sports editor

Email newsletter signup

Adam Daigle

says easily as he greets someone coming into the room. &8220;Hey, dude, how&8217;re you doing,&8221; he responds to a telephone caller.

A great word. He has made it his own, and he uses it comfortably and in a friendly manner.

Hearing the word often, however, I began to wonder how the usage began and just how the word had crept into the language with yet another twist.

The young people who use the word today may not know how recently &8212; or how far back &8212; dude came to be an accepted word.

Dictionaries indicate the origin of the word is unknown, but they agree that dude came into the language about 1875, a word used to refer to an overly snazzy dresser &8212; a dandy, in other words.

As early as 1883, a Natchez newspaper noted that the dude hat was all the rage on the Mississippi River. The hat is described as made of white duck and having a round, pointed crown and a wide brim.

Already the dude had made it from the big city to the small towns on the river, and no eyes missed his outlandish dress, including a short-tailed sack coat.

That same year, 1883, a female journalist described the dude with obvious disdain as &8220;something that for the sake of convenience we will call a man, which, by the way, is a gross libel on man.&8221;

The dude, she said, wore a round collar that was too tight; an ugly scarf and a breast pin. His coat was a cutaway and his hat was made of silk.

&8220;Clothe its lower extremities with pants wherein calves were never meant to grow. In its hand, a cane, and on its feet, boots that creak at every step,&8221; she continued.

With a cigarette in his mouth, the dude would speak to reveal a limited vocabulary, mostly adverbs and adjectives &8212; phrases such as &8220;immensely clever.&8221;

By the mid 20th century, the majority of Americans had new and much different views of the word dude. By then, dude ranches were all the rage, and their popularity not scorned.

Three enterprising brothers established the first dude ranch near Sheridan, Wyo., in 1904, a place where city slickers could come and taste the outdoors and brag to their neighbors back home about riding horses and observing real cowboys rounding up the cattle.

Dude ranches popped up all over the West as the century continued, some of them real working ranches that brought city folks in for a couple of weeks to fish, hunt, ride horses and watch the ranch hands carry out their chores. Some of the ranches gave the paying guests the option of joining in the chores, especially helping with the livestock.

Dictionaries today give three meanings. The fancy man remains. So does the city slicker. A third definition is simply, &8220;a fellow.&8221;

So there you go. Dude is just as fine a word as you&8217;ll find to say hello to one of the guys. Another hundred years from now, though, who knows.

Joan Gandy

is community editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at (601) 445-3549 or by e-mail to