A linguistic study of the word "Dude"

What follows is a paper I wrote for my linguistics class. Plagiarize this and I'll hunt down you and your immediate family.

For my study I have chosen the word “dude.” It is a word that I use often without thinking about its meaning, so I thought it would be interesting to subject it to a modern linguistic analysis.

Phonetics and Phonology

The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) transcription of “dude” is /dud/.* The word is often lengthened--[du:d]--and is sometimes rounded--[duwd]--but these phonetic differences do not make a difference semantically.

* The Oxford English Dictionary transcribes it as /dju:d/.


“Dude” consists of one free morpheme, dude.* The most common affix taken is the suffix -ical, which changes the noun “dude” into the adjective “dudical.” This process is phonologically similar to that which changes the adjective “rad” into the adjective “radical.” “Dudical,” however, differs in meaning with the adjective dude-ish; the former is similar to the adjectives “cool” or “awesome” and can refer to any noun, whereas “dudish” describes how much of a dude an individual is.** There are many other less common forms. Though dude is currently used to refer to a person of either gender, the suffix -ette was once added to denote a female “dude”*** (this was more common during the 1980s, when the phrase “dudes and dudettes” served the same purpose--though in a different register--as the phrase “ladies and gentlemen”). The suffix -ness can be added to create the noun dude-ness (operating in the same way as other -ness nouns, such as black-ness and bright-ness). The Oxford English Dictionary defines “dudeness” (along with “dudedom,” “dudery,” and “dudism”) as “the state, style, character, or manners of a dude.” Like certain other -ness nouns (such as high-ness), dude-ness can be used as a proper noun (“His Dudeness” is used in the same way as “His (Royal) Highness”). “Dude” can also take the Spanish determiner “el” and the Spanish suffix -erino (creating “El Duderino”****). “Duder” (dude-er), a semantically-equivalent alternate for “dude,” was used in the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Additionally, The Cassell Dictionary of Slang offers the alternative “dudester” (“a person, irrespective of gender”).

* The affixes listed in this paragraph are all bound morphemes.
** The OED defines “dudish” as “characteristic of a dude” or “foppish.”
*** According to the OED, a female dude is a “dudess” or a “dudine”--though I have never heard these forms.
**** “His Dudeness” and “El Duderino” are very uncommon forms. I have only heard the former once or twice in my life, and the latter only once, in the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski (the main character in this film calls himself “the Dude,” and offers “El Duderino” as an acceptable alternative).


“Dude” is a noun (N), and can take all determiners appropriate for nouns (proper or otherwise) describing a person or a group of people.* The noun “dude” does not take any complements (such as “in,” “with,” “about,” etc.). When used as a verb, however, it takes the complement “up”: to “dude up” means to dress oneself up (like a dude). The verb phrase (VP) “dude up” can be further modified into the adjective phrase (AP) “duded up” (meaning “dressed up”).

* “The dude” refers to a specific (and possibly the only) dude, “a dude” implies the existence of multiple dudes but refers to only one, etc.

Semantics and Pragmatics

“Dude” can mean many things. It is an attention-getter (an alternative to “hey!”), an expression of interest or excitement in response to something just uttered (A: “I just won the lottery!”, B: “Are you serious? Dude!”), a gender-neutral* address (“Hey, Dude, can I try that?”), and a noun referring to a person (usually near the speaker’s age, and with a connotation of “cool** person”). I use the term very often with my friends but never with employers or other people with whom I am associated professionally.

* There is the form “dudette” but I have always used dude for both sexes. None of my friends--male or female--currently use dudette.
** Of course, by “cool” I mean “interesting” or “neat” (also taken in its nonliteral sense).

Language Change

According to the OED, “dude” is “a factitious slang term which came into vogue in New York about the beginning of 1883, in connexion with the ‘aesthetic’ craze of that day.” Its actual origin, however, is not recorded. The OED defines “dude” as “a name given in ridicule to a man affecting an exaggerated fastidiousness in dress, speech, and deportment, and very particular about what is aesthetically ‘good form’; hence, extended to an exquisite, a dandy, ‘a swell’.”* The Cassell Dictionary of Slang lists similar definitions (“an overdressed, showy person, a fop or dandy” and “a fool” are two of the possibilities) but also gives its more contemporary meaning. Since the 1970s, “dude” means simply “a person, irrespective of gender.” It certainly is no longer used “in ridicule” (OED), but is more often than not a compliment.**

* The OED also gives the meaning it acquires when used in the phrase “dude ranch,” but this meaning does not concern me in this study.
** I think an appropriate comparison is the word “pimp”--literally describing a man who exploits the services of prostitutes for his own financial gain (something that can hardly be called a compliment), it is now used as an adjective meaning “fancy or stylish.” In a similar way “dude” is no longer used as an insult.


“Dude” is used by both sexes and all ages (though it is more commonly used by males than females, and is rarely used by older generations) in casual social situations. It is more socially acceptable for an older person to address a younger person as dude than the other way around. Its register is informal; in more formal registers it can be replaced by words such as “sir” or “ma’am” (or the plural “ladies and gentlemen,” as mentioned above) when used as an address, phrases such as “whoa!” when used as an exclamation, or general nouns such as “person,” “man,” or “woman” when used as a noun. I have noticed that the word was used more often in California in the 1980s than it is now in Oregon. Since moving to Oregon I have used the word less and less, and I am sometimes criticized when I use it “too much” (in California, one could never use it “too much”).