In the Chronicle of Higher Education last month, Allan Metcalf reported that etymologists Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen had established that the word “dude” arose out of the Revolutionary-era figure of “Yankee Doodle.”
Popik and Cohen’s work appears in the latest issue of Comments on Etymology, edited and published by Cohen at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. That study, 129 pages long, contains many reprints of articles that document the sudden flowering of the word “dude” (also spelled “dood”) in early 1883. However, these three webpages reprint some of Popik and Cohen’s earlier articles on the word, showing that their work goes back twenty years.
The hypothesis is not altogether novel. In 1891 Henry Dudley Teetor published an essay about “Yankee Doodle” in the Magazine of Western History that said:
A “doodle” in the old English dictionaries, is defined to be “a sorry, trifling fellow,” perhaps the ancestor of the modern “dude,”…(Teetor was cribbing from Benson J. Lossing’s Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, first published in 1850. I can’t find an old English dictionary with the definition Lossing quoted, but Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1823 edition, defines “doodle” as “A silly fellow, or noodle. . . . Also, a child’s penis.”)
But a “dude” in the late 1800s wasn’t just “a sorry, trifling fellow,” as Teetor suggested. He was a particular type of fellow, one who dressed too fashionably to be masculine. There are two citations from the late 1870s. A teen-aged Frederic Remington wrote to fellow artist in 1877 with whom he was swapping sketches, “Don’t send me any more women or any more dudes. Send me Indians, cowboys, villains, or toughs.” (That quotation was published as early as 1910, but I don’t know if any manuscript survives.) Ami Frank Mulford’s Fighting Indians in the 7th U.S. Cavalry (1879 edition shown here) refers to “dude soldiers, pets of dress parade officers.”
But the word exploded into the public eye in early 1883, as shown in Popik and Cohen’s many citations, such as this from the New-York Mirror of 24 February:
…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.And the May 1883 issue of Clothier and Furnisher:
DEFINITION OF THE WORD DUDEOlder terms for an overly fashionable young man included “fop,” “dandy,” and “macaroni”—the latter two appearing in the best-known lyrics of “Yankee Doodle.” If we read that verse literally, its subject tried to dress fashionably and failed, becoming only a “Doodle Dandy.”
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-y” 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 personators of the real fop. . . . In the last year or two 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 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.
Popik and Cohen suggest that around the Centennial, with its celebration of the Revolution, Americans tapped the memory of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to create a term for modern dandies who also came off looking silly. The fact that “dude” could be spelled “dood” at first strengthens that case. However, in all the discussion of that hip new term from 1883, no one appears to have connected it explicitly to “Yankee Doodle.”
Was there indeed an intermediary form pronounced “dood-y”? To add to the discussion, I cite Robert D. Petty’s “Censor” oration printed in the Nassau Herald, Princeton’s yearbook, for 1883:
Our last story is about “that sort of an animal,” as General says, “which they call a dudee.” Robertus, let your aesthetic countenance smile upon the audience. . . .This roasting appears to be directed at Robert F. Shanklin of Evansville, Indiana, who was leader of the glee club and whose class prophecy appeared next in the publication. According to a chart later in the book, Shanklin was a willowy chap: 6'2" and 170 pounds. His supposed speech patterns, concern with dress, eye-glasses, and “aesthetic” delicacy (mixed with skirt-chasing) all match the stereotype of the “dude” discussed at such length in the New York press that year.
Robertus began his career of dudee young. It is said at the age of seven he set a house on fire to burn out some rats, because it was so “clevah, you know.” Early, also, he showed the dudeean characteristic of being susceptible to the charms of the fair sex. In Fresh year he went to Rocky Hill, as member of that Fresh Glee Club which passed off for Soph. Our dudee at once became smitten by a rustic maid—not an “onion-eater,” but one of those, as the poet says, ”who waste their sweetness on the desert air.” Bob insisted in monopolizing the “desert sweetness” for the dance. Landy Green, a Southern fire-eater, protested, and they tossed for the “desert sweetness.” Bob lost and claimed a foul, whereupon Landy, with true Southern “chivalry,” kicked our aesthetic friend under the table, and lead the dance with the aforesaid “desert sweetness.” . . .
At first we thought it would be a suitable memento if the class would buy up your debts, such as bets, etc., and present you with the receipts. How could you have the heart to defraud that verdant son of “My Maryland,” Frank Woods, out of so many creams and oysters? But since the purchase of these receipts would bankrupt the class, and as they would be of no use to an aesthetic young man, we have procured more suitable presents. . . . We will not present you with gloves, for you bought a pair the other day, when you asked the bewildered clerk for a pair of “six and a hawf” gloves, and, after a severe struggle, managed to get on a pair of “eight and a hawf.” This is an improved eye-glass, especially for a dudee. If you had possessed this, that little prep. school charmer of Glendale, O., would not have said “nary wilt,” when on your knees you asked, “fairest maiden, wilt thou?” But here is a little present, which will ever protect you from the “vulgah.”
Our final admonition is, Robertus, if you do not wish to die young, as G. Bruce and other great men, cast off thy susceptible heart, even if you have to buy a bottle of “beah,” and make a night of it with the “fellahs.”
Since 1883, of course, the term “dude” lost most of its connotations of foppishness and became an all-around term for young men, with no pejorative sense. Perhaps Yankee Doodle got the last laugh after all.