Dude, What Does ‘Dude’ Mean?

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I often think about words and how they relate to the way we express ourselves. Sometimes, we’re at a loss for words, either because we can’t find the words to articulate what we mean or because the word just doesn’t exist. Other times, we say a word but don’t really know what it means.

I’m thinking in particular of the word “dude.” Some of my guy friends use this word all the time. “Dude, I can’t believe that happened! That’s crazy, dude. Listen, dude, just go with the flow.” Movie titles like “Dude, Where’s My Car?” and the Bud Light “Dude” commercial also come to mind.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says the word “dude” dates back to 1883 and means a man extremely fastidious in dress and manner” or “a city dweller unfamiliar with life on the range.” We know the word today for its less formal usage.

The New York Times recently wrote a piece about the word “dude,” saying:

What’s a familiar four-letter word that can mean almost anything, depending on the context in which it is spoken and the inflection of the speaker? Dude!

In a series of television commercials for Bud Light, in which the word dude, used repeatedly, is the only line of dialogue, the term is shown to have a seemingly limitless number of translations. In the right circumstances dude can be a stern admonition to a co-worker ( “Please stop tapping that pencil on your desk”), an entreaty to a teammate (“Pass me the basketball!”) or a subtle nudge to a friend (“Check out the scantily clad showgirls on that escalator”).

In reading this description, I was struck by how masculine the word “dude” seems. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say, “dudette!” even when guys are talking about, or to, girls. In much the same way, other expressions such as “You guys,” or, “I don’t mean to be the bad guy here, but …” carry masculine undertones. Dude, what’s up with that?

What are some other examples of words/expressions that people use a lot but that are difficult to define?