VT subscriber Kcecelia of San Francisco, CA writes in about yesterday's Visual Thesaurus Word of the Day: dude. She observes that the word's current usage has little to do with its more historical sense, "a man who is much concerned with his dress and appearance":

Last month a 20-something man in an Oregon gas station punctuated his conversation with me with references to me as dude. I am a 55-year-old woman. Also, people say duuuude as an exclamation or interjection. I sometimes say dude myself in a more joking manner to people I am with who are sprinkling it liberally into their conversation. I do not mean that they are a fop or a dandy.

Especially now that Todd Palin, husband of Gov. Sarah Palin, is in the news as Alaska's "First Dude," this is a good time to reflect on the peculiar history of this all-American word.

For a word that has relatively recent origins, the origins of dude have been surprisingly elusive. Our finest word sleuths have been on the case for a while now, and nothing has been found for dude or its possible predecessors from before the late 1870s. We know it was occasionally used as a nickname; for instance, the Allen County (Ohio) Democrat referred to someone named "Dude" Collins several times as early as 1876. That was just a name given to one particular person, for reasons unknown. But in 1877, according to posthumously collected letters, young Frederic Remington used dude as a noun when he wrote to a friend asking for portraits to help his preparation as a Western artist: "Don't send me any more women or any more dudes. Send me Indians, cowboys, villains or toughs." And in 1879 Ami Frank Mulford published a book about the 7th Cavalry (the regiment that General Custer led to defeat at Little Bighorn), in which he dismissively described an infantry unit as "composed of dude soldiers, pets of dress parade officers." 

Remington's "dudes" and Mulford's "dude soldiers" were evidently unserious young men, rather "soft" in comparison to more rugged Western counterparts. That image was elaborated in the 1880s into a stereotypically frivolous, well-dressed man of leisure. Barry Popik discovered a key early text in the May 1883 issue of Clothier and Furnisher, entitled "Definition of the Word Dude":

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 'doody' 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.

Etymologist Gerald Cohen sees this description as evidence that dude originated from the old patriotic song, "Yankee Doodle," particularly the line "Yankee Doodle dandy." Cohen surmises that doodle and dandy got blended together to form doody, which then got shortened to dude. Another theory is that dude arose out of the slang term duds for clothes, since the prototypical dude was a real clotheshorse. Yet another theory is that it has to do with the silly-looking extinct bird, the dodo.

Regardless of the origin, dude spread like wildfire in 1883, used to describe fashionable young men in New York and other urban centers. (Oscar Wilde, who had just toured the United States, was seen as a dude par excellence.) A poem in the January 14, 1883 New York World, "The True Origin and History of 'The Dude,'" did much to popularize the word. Out West, dude came to be associated with the dude ranch, a place where city slickers could go for a taste of what they imagined was genuine cowboy life.

Over time dude lost its sense of foppishness and in certain circles could just mean "fellow, chap." In African American culture in particular, dude became an approving designation for any man. California surfing culture eventually followed suit, extending dude into a vocative, or a term of address. Think of Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in the 1982 classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, who addressed everyone as dude. (A later cinematic embodiment of California dude-dom was played by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, a character known simply as "The Dude.") The many nuances of dude as a vocative or general exclamation have recently been explored in a series of clever Bud Light commercials.

Thus we arrive at a moment in history where Todd Palin feels more comfortable with "First Dude" than the official appellation for the husband of a governor, "First Gentleman." (Gary Sebelius, husband of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, was known as "First Dude" before Palin, by the way.) We've come a long way from the urban dandies of the 1880s: Palin is Alaskan-born and has worked as an oil field operator and salmon fisherman, and in his spare time he races snowmachines (what Alaskans call snowmobiles). Who knows where dude will go from here? To quote The Big Lebowski, "The Dude abides."

[Update, Mar. 1, 2015: The examples from 1877 and 1879, according to subsequent research published in Gerald Cohen's Comments on Etymology, appear to be misdated. The Jan. 14, 1883 poem in the New York World, written by Robert Sale-Hill, remains the earliest known example of dude in its modern meaning. For an alternative theory about its origin related to the dodo and some other doodles besides the Yankee variety, see Peter Jensen Brown's Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog.)