This famed scene from The Big Lebowski gives us a window into the evolution of the classic American slang word “dude.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition), the term first arose around 1883 and referred to the sort of man who wore spats and smoked cigarettes—in effect, a dandy. The association of the dandy with urban settings gave us the term “dude ranch,” a Western ranch catering to urban tourists. History nerds, keep in mind that the association between effeminacy and homosexuality was not yet well formed in American culture, so the term gives us a snapshot of a time when the corruptions of wealth and luxury were more associated with being effete than a sexual interest in men.
“Dude” as a synonym for “male person” began in the African American community by 1918. Anyone who’s ever listened to any Lord Buckley, performer beloved by beatniks, can imagine the path of the word from there to white counterculture. By the 1970s, when El Duderino was dropping out of college, the usage was documented in a slang dictionary compiled by students at the University of North Carolina.
I’ll close with a clip (sorry for the poor quality) that shows, better than I can, one contemporary use of the word dude, as a bro-ish interjection expressing nothing in particular. We’ve come a long way from spats, alas.