• Linguistic Variation and Change (Edinburgh Sociolinguistics)
    Linguistic Variation and Change (Edinburgh Sociolinguistics)
    by Scott F. Kiesling
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Monday
Jul072014

Dude is just for dudes....not*

So back a few years ago when I first talked about dude, it was pretty clear that it mostly was used by men. I had a survey and something like four times as many uses were by men than by women. Then a couple of years ago I heard my then-11-year-old daughter respond to her mother with dude. I wish I remembered the whole phrase, but it doesn’t matter. Her mom is definitely not a dude, so what is going on?

Now, this was in Pittsburgh, and that’s where the survey was done. Pittsburgh is not exactly the surfer capital of the world. So something is definitely going on here. But I was reminded that back in 2005 I got an email from a woman in Portland who said everyone in her office calls each other dude. Clearly the West coast is in the lead on this one, which seems to happen quite often. But that’s the thing about dude. It started with a really specific kinds of people talking to those same kinds of people (actually even more specific than a surfer or skater or stoner dude, but that’s another story). Then other people started using it.

Why? Because it was useful in a way that other terms that could be used aren’t. If you use a first name it’s not quite the same. It’s friendly, but not in quite the same cool way. And probably something really intimate like boo is not the effect you are going for. Sir? Right. Mister? Buddy? Now that’s pretty close! But when I use buddy (or bud) I kind of feel like I should be wearing a fedora and wearing a suit in the 40s. In other words it’s kind of old. Nothing else really gives you that cool like dude (yes, I will get to bro soon!). So why shouldn’t women want that? When I was collecting lots of data for the dude project, one of the students overheard a guy trying to pick up a woman in a bar. Eventually, she said, “Dude, it’s just not gonna happen, OK?” to his request of a her phone number. Dude was incredibly useful for her here. With that one word, she made it very clear nothing was going to happen between them. So dude is all about an attitude, and it’s useful for women as well as men.

You might have heard the term dudette thrown around as a female counterpart to dude. But it never caught on and is usually used now not as an address term but as a salutation, as when someone starts a speech with “Dudes and dudettes,” parallel to “Ladies and gentleman.” The folks in Portland (and, I would guess, most if not all of the west coast) don’t use dudette when they want to use dude talking to a woman or a girl, and the women don’t use dudette either. Even in Pittsburgh my daughter used dude with her mother. What is going on here? Isn’t dude a male term? Well, here’s the thing: language changes and so do meanings (in fact, this use of dude is probably not in the dictionary, and certainly not one from before 1970). Dude is losing it’s ‘maleness’ and coming to be used only for expressing attitude or stance.

 

*This use of not comes from my trawling around in 80s movies too much. I'm old enough to remember when it was a cool thing to say...

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