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Dr. Gerald “Jerry” Cohen, who is an expert in etymology, or the study of word origins, recently co-authored a book titled Origin of the Term Dude, along with Barry Popik and Peter Reitan. In the scholarly book, the three show how the term came about and where its roots are in the English language.
“Dude had long been of unknown origin, but at least much of its early story has now come to light,” says Cohen, a professor of foreign languages at Missouri S&T. “The book is the cumulation of research that started in 1993, when Popik discovered a poem titled ‘The Dude’ that was first published in a New York newspaper in January 1883.”
The word, first used in Robert Sale Hill’s poem, has changed quite a bit since that original usage.
“The present meaning has hip, cool overtones, but in the 1880’s, calling someone a dude was an insult,” says Cohen. “The term referred to the brainless, insipid, wealthy young men imitating what they considered to be refined British dress and speech but making themselves ridiculous in doing so. The humorists had a field day with them.”