Dude is an American English slang term for an individual. It typically applies to males, although the word can encompass all genders.
Dude is an old term, recognized by multiple generations although potentially with slightly different meanings. From the 1870s to the 1960s, dude primarily meant a person who dressed in an extremely fashion-forward manner (a dandy) or a citified person who was visiting a rural location but stuck out (a city slicker). In the 1960s, dude evolved to mean any male person, a meaning that slipped into mainstream American slang in the 1970s. Current slang retains at least some use of all three of these common meanings.
The word may have derived from the Scottish term for clothes, duddies. The term "dude" was first used in print in 1876, in Putnam's Magazine, to mock how a woman was dressed (as a "dud"/dude). The use of the word "dudde" for clothing in English goes as far back 1567.
In 1885, a newspaper advertisement for men's clothing credits the Baptist missionary G. W. Hervey for the notion that 'dude' may have been derived from the Swahili language. He cited A Handbook of the Swahili Language (As Spoken at Zanzibar), by Edward Steer, LL.D., Missionary Bishop for Central Africa, as translating the Swahili word 'dude' (plural, madude) as "a thing of which you don't know or have forgotten the name." Purportedly, the locals described early missionaries to Africa as "dude."
In the popular press of the 1880s and 1890s, "dude" was a new word for "dandy" – an extremely well-dressed male, a man who paid particular importance to how he appeared. The café society and Bright Young Things of the late 1800s and early 1900s were populated with dudes. Young men of leisure vied to show off their wardrobes. The best known of this type is probably Evander Berry Wall, who was dubbed "King of the Dudes" in 1880s New York and maintained a reputation for sartorial splendor all his life. This version of the word is still in occasional use in American slang, as in the phrase "all duded up" for getting dressed in fancy clothes.
A variation of this was a well-dressed man who is unfamiliar with life outside a large city. In The Home and Farm Manual (1883), author Jonathan Periam used the term "dude" several times to denote an ill-bred and ignorant, but ostentatious, man from the city.
The implication of an individual who is unfamiliar with the demands of life outside of urban settings gave rise to the definition of dude as a city slicker, or "an Easterner in the [United States] West". Thus "dude" was used to describe the wealthy men of the expansion of the United States during the 19th century by ranch-and-homestead-bound settlers of the American Old West. This use is reflected in the dude ranch, a guest ranch catering to urbanites seeking more rural experiences. Dude ranches began to appear in the American West in the early 20th century, for wealthy Easterners who came to experience the "cowboy life." The implicit contrast is with those persons accustomed to a given frontier, agricultural, mining, or other rural setting. This usage of "dude" was still in use in the 1950s in America, as a word for a tourist — of either gender — who attempts to dress like the local culture but fails. An inverse of these uses of "dude" would be the term "redneck," a contemporary American colloquialism referring to poor farmers and uneducated persons, which itself became pejorative, and is also still in use.
The term was also used as a job description, such as "bush hook dude" as a position on a railroad in the 1880s. For an example, see the Stampede Tunnel.
In the early 1960s, dude became prominent in surfer culture as a synonym of guy or fella. The female equivalent, which is used less often, is "dudette" or "dudess," although "dude" is also used as a unisex term. This more general meaning of "dude" started creeping into the mainstream in the mid-1970s. "Dude" is generally used informally to address someone (“Dude, I’m glad you finally called”) or refer to another person (“That dude is stealing my car”).
1883 – Political cartoon of Chester A. Arthur pictures the refined, well-dressed President, with the caption, "According to your cloth you've cut your coat, O Dude of all the White House residents; We trust that will help you with the vote, When next we go nominating Presidents."
1889 – Andy a dude and a chorus of dudes in the opera Leo, the Royal Cadet by Oscar Ferdinand Telgmann sing We are the Dudes: "We are the dudes you read about in all the papers Social Etudes, we captivate all hearts by our capers, Bai Gawge! Once every week the Bank pays each and all of us two dollars; But, by cold cheek we sport the latest thing in coats and collars, Bai Gawge! Weep ye, en masse! We're suffering most excruciating pain; For ah! alas! The Prince of Wales has ceased to carry a cane, Bai Gawge! Till we learn whether His Highness orders that the cane shall go; Each with a feather we promenade the city streets just so, Bai Gawge!"
1889 – A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain comments on how commoners in Medieval Britain worshiped nobility and title without question, for the sake only of a meaningless title: "...and the best of English commoners was still content to see his inferiors impudently continuing to hold a number of positions, such as lordships and the throne, to which the grotesque laws of his country did not allow him to aspire; in fact, he was even able to persuade himself that he was proud of it. It seems to show that there isn't anything you can't stand, if you are only born and bred to it. Of course that taint, that reverence for rank and title, had been in our American blood, too – I know that; but when I left America it had disappeared – at least to all intents and purposes. The remnant of it was restricted to the dudes and dudesses. When a disease has worked its way down to that level, it may fairly be said to be out of the system."
1969 - In the film Easy Rider, Billy (Dennis Hopper) speculates that George (Jack Nicholson) "must be some important dude". When George asks what the word "dude" means, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) tells him "dude means, uh, nice guy, dude means regular sort of person".
1985 – Less Than Zero (a novel by Bret Easton Ellis) includes the first published usage of the now-common phrase, "No way, dude!", and the first mainstream display of "dude" having crossed the gender barrier. In a noteworthy scene, a young woman tells her mother, "No way, dude."
1998 – BASEketball, featuring Trey Parker and Matt Stone as two young men who, at one point in the film, have an argument composed entirely of the word "dude," with their inflections conveying the meaning of each instance of the word.
1998 – The Big Lebowski, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen features Jeff Bridges as "The Dude" ("or His Dudeness, or Duder, or, you know, El Duderino, if you're not into the whole brevity thing"), an aging hippie/beach bum, who turns 'dude' into a philosophy. The film's narrator, an old-fashioned cowboy played by Sam Elliott, insinuates that he considers the term 'dude' in its traditional sense, meaning a pretentious city-slicker type, rather than in its more contemporary sense.
2008 – Bud Light airs an advertising campaign in which the dialogue consists entirely of different inflections of "Dude!" and does not mention the product by name. It was a followup to their near-identical and more widely noted 1999–2002 "Whassup?" campaign.