No, I’m not referring to the president of the United States. Instead, it’s the first known appearance in print of the great American word dude, newly clarified in the latest issue of the journal Comments on Etymology, published by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science & Technology.
In 1882 dude was unknown. In 1883, it was on the pages of seemingly every newspaper in the United States, as a brand new label for a foppish young man. And it was all thanks to an 84-line poem in the New York World of January 14 by an Irish-born resident of New York City, Robert Sale Hill.
To those who care about the origins of dude, this isn’t news. It has been reported for more than a decade in the pages of Comments on Etymology by the lawyer and word sleuth Barry Popik, and others. It was also known that of the three supposed pre-1883 attestations of dude, two are unreliable. What’s new this time, as the independent scholar Peter Reitan explains in the May 2014 issue, is that the third pre-1883 attestation—in a book whose given publication date is 1879—is also unreliable. Why? Because as Reitan points out, the book’s publisher wasn’t born until 1886.
So unless further evidence emerges, it appears that Hill was not just the instigator, but the actual inventor of dude, the word that still resonates today, though with a different meaning.
When I previously wrote about dude, I neglected to give Hill his due. To make up for that neglect, and to emphasize his importance as the nondude who invented the name that soon eclipsed fop and masher, here’s his January 14, 1883, poem. It’s tedious, to say the least. But it’s important for establishing not just the word but also the description of the first American dudes, quite different from their cool descendants nowadays. Dude!
The True Origin and History of ‘The Dude’
The following “pome,” somewhat inscrutable by THE WORLD, is published as of probably interest “to whom it may concern,” like A. Lincoln’s Niagara letter to Horace Greeley:
Long years ago, in ages crude,
Before there was a mode, oh!
There lived a bird, they called a “Dude,”
Resembling much the “Dodo.”
Its stupid airs and vanity
Made other birds explode, so
They christened it in charity
First cousin to the “Dodo.”
It plumed itself in foreign plumes,
And thought home products no-no,
For idiocy it ranked with “Lunes,”
And hence surpassed the “Dodo.”
When Darwin’s theory first saw light,
“The dude” he tried to think of,
But monkeys being far more bright,
He made the missing link of.
Now lately in this hemisphere,
Through some amalgamation,
A flock of Dudes, I greatly fear,
Are added to our nation.
In form and feature rather young—
Somewhat resembling man, sir—
They flit about and speak a tongue
That is not worth a d—n, sir.
Their features, first I would explain
Are of the washed-out order—
Mild dissipation, feeble brain
With cigarette smoke border.
Their feathers o’er their brow they bang,
Their cheek resembles leather;
Their style, inclusive, is in slang,
The “Strike me with a feather.”
Their father’s cuff [collar] supports a hat—
The head just seen between them;
A coachman’s riding coat at that
Envelopes all and screens them;
Save just below the coat is seen,
Where muscles ought to be, sir,
A pair of pipe stems, cased in green,
Skin-tight and half-mast high, sir.
To this please add a pointed shoe,
Verandas built around it;
A necktie, either white or blue,
C’ est fini, if you doubt it.
Just take a walk some sunny day—
Be sure the wind’s not high, sir,
For in a breeze they dare not stay
Before they’ve learnt to fly, sir. –
And there in flocks upon the ave
For ladies they’re but slim beaux,
You see them flitting o’er the pave,
With arms—or wings—akimbo.
They have their nests, also a club,
Alas, so misapplied, sir,
Like other birds they love light grub,
For beef’s to them denied, sir.
Of stairs their club-house has no need,
For, entering the hall door,
They take a long breath and with speed
Float upwards off the hall floor.
They hardly breathe, they are so light;
A smile their coat it creases,
And one who laughed the other night,
Was carried home in pieces.
They do not care for cruel sports,
Like foot-ball, cricket, gunning,
But lemonade they drink by quarts,
Their girling’s “real stunning!”
The Brush Electric Lighting Co.
Have cased their lights in wire
For fear, attracted by the glow
They’d set their wings on fire.
Imported “dudes” are very shy
Now “Oscar’s” [Wilde] crossed the ocean,
But native “Dudes” soon learn to fly
And seem to like the notion.
If they would only fly away
And settle out in China,
Give us the chance, the girls will say
To hunt up something finer.
America can ill afford
To harbor such deformity,
And we would humbly thank the Lord
To spare us this enormity.