As the great comedy sketch and perfectly weird 1997 movie Good Burger expressed, “I’m a dude, he’s a dude, she’s a dude, we’re all dudes.” But seriously, are we all dudes? Let’s delve into the elusive word.
To start out my research I reached out to a few self-identified dudes to learn what the term means to them:
“I grew up in California and it’s pretty much used every fifth word.” – Ned, 31.
“For me, the term ‘dude’ has always been gender neutral when it’s used in a familiar setting. It feels like a term of endearment among friends of varying genders and gives a sense of camaraderie.” – Ashley, 24.
“There are only good dudes. If you were telling somebody about a person you don’t know, you might say ‘he’s a good dude’ or you might say ‘he’s a bad guy’. But never ‘she’s a bad dude’. Therefore we can safely conclude that all dudes are by nature good.” – Mike, 35.
For people that identify with it, dude is a gender neutral term meant for (usually) positive interactions. Also, self-identified dudes agree that in a familiar context, dude is interchangeable with “friend” or “pal.” It’s when you encounter someone you don’t know that dude can take on a new meaning.
“When [dude] is used by an unfamiliar party I may take offense as I would with any term of endearment like baby, honey, sweety… which sounds condescending,” Ashley said.
It’s important to be aware of who you’re talking to. “Dude” as a familiar term among friends has a totally different meaning than say, when you call your boss “dude.” It’s important to use your discretion when using anything other than a person’s name, even with generally relatable terms like “dude.”
So, what about the whole issue with “dude” being a term specific to cis men? A lot of us think of The Dude from The Big Lebowski as the quintessential representation of the word: a straight white man. Regardless of the ever-evolving definition, Oxford claims it’s still synonymous with “guy” or “man.” A recent article by Mic emphasized the point, grouping “dude” with male terms like “guys, men, him or he’s.”
But could it be the original, textbook definition hasn’t caught up to the modern use? One of the most popular definitions of “dude” on Urban Dictionary is “a universal pronoun.”
A user named Dezi gave a more elaborate history of the word:
1) Originally, “dude” meant a stuck up person who dressed overly well. It first emerged in the year 1883 in England.
2) Later it was used in the old west to mean a city person who moved to the west without actually knowing what he was doing. Synonymous with “city-slicker.”
3) Later, in California, the term changed from these insults to a term meaning any male, human or otherwise. Sometimes it is used in reference to tom-girls. Now, it is often used for emphasis as well.
Is it possible Oxford hasn’t caught up with “dude” as a word for all? Turns out it’s not so far-fetched for a word to change meaning over time. For example, “awful” used to mean “full of awe” instead of downright horrible. And let’s not forget gay used to mean “happy.” That sure as hell evolved. Perhaps “dude” is on its own path to reemerge as the gender neutral pronoun Urban Dictionary claims it is. Jo, 27, sees the word as both masculine-leaning and for everyone:
“To me ‘dude’ connotes a certain catchall name for someone who has some identification with masculine tendencies.”
And yes, regardless of gender anyone can be masculine. Emerson, 25, who doesn’t identify as a dude, feels like it’s more of a general term within the Millennial generation.
“I don’t identify as a ‘dude’, but I use it as a gender-neutral, curious and empathetic salutation to people my age or younger than me.”
Seems like the ongoing theme is gender neutral, here. And yes, there are genderless pronouns out there already. Take they/them for instance. Many trans* people who identify outside of the gender binary, myself included, use the pronoun in place of she/her or he/him. Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that the term has been used countless times as a singular pronoun since the Shakespearean era, many people still claim it’s difficult to use for one person. It’s really not that hard people—but I digress. And then there are terms like Ze and Zir which most people who have not encountered a trans person may have never heard of. That is by no fault of trans people, but the lack of progression in the mainstream world still make those terms very difficult to use. Could dude be the one pronoun out there that all Americans would easily adapt into their vocabulary, if they have not done so already?
Even though “dude” started out as a marker for cis men, it’s clearly evolving into something more inclusive. You can reserve it for those familiar to you to refer to a friend, or use it as a filler if you’re totally bored with “um.” Dude has a way to go as far as veering out of “man” land – Geez, men always wanna own everything. – But when compared to its “guys” counterpart, it’s come a long way. With the overarching agreement that “dude” can be for anyone, it looks like time to push it further outside the gender binary. One day we might all drop the collective “his” to “dudes,” and that sounds like an awesome shift to me. So for now, the answer is yes: we are all dudes, if we so choose.