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When a Dude Is Not a ‘Dude’

Two weeks ago I triumphantly reported the apparent discovery of the Ur-dude, the original invention back in 1883 of the now-familiar word dude. Etymologists had previously known about Robert Sale Hill’s poem in the New York World of January 14, 1883, the one I republished in my post, but there had been several other apparent earlier instances. The news, reported in articles by Peter Reitan in the May 2014 issue of Gerald Cohen’s Comments on Etymology, was that the last of three supposed earlier instances turned out to be a false positive. Hill was unquestionably the disseminator of dude to a wider public; in view of the discredited earlier instances he could well have been the inventor of the word as well.

Or could he? My report prompted this comment from “rljohnsn”:

Quick search in the on-line Newspaper Archive yielded over 2000 possible uses of “dude” prior to 1882. Without checking all of them, both the Spirit Lake (IA) Beacon, 10 Oct. 1878 and the Allen County (OH) Democrat, 10 Feb. 1881 clearly use the word “dude” as indicated in the poem.

Two thousand possibly overlooked uses? Was this the mother of all scholarly oversights? I knew that Professor Cohen and his contributors are meticulous in their documentation, if sometimes free in their speculation, so I asked Reitan and Cohen about it. They immediately dug into the online archives, and Reitan made this full report:

“Here is an initial readout on the 1878 Spirit Lake (Iowa) Beacon ‘Dude.’ As the word is used in the newspaper article, we know only that it is the nickname of someone named Gilbert (probably John Gilbert; the second article from the Beacon refers to a John (Dude) Gilbert). We have no indication at all that he is a dude (young, brainless, dressed and acting in an affected British style, as typified the 1883ff. dudes). Instead, ‘Dude’ Gilbert was an outdoors type who enjoyed and was proficient in trap shooting. He was indeed called ‘Dude,’ but we have no information as to how or why he received this nickname. We therefore definitely do not deal here with a reliable early attestation of dude as used by Robert Sale Hill in 1883.

“Here is the relevant section from the Spirit Lake Beacon: ‘Fatal resolution! The battery opens, and even “Dude” Gilbert’s short barrels are long enough to bring down a tough old drake. By the way, that “Dude” is no slouch.’

“’Dude’ Gilbert is also mentioned in an 1899 book titled Recreation, vol. 11, p. 132: ‘Will the editor or some reader of RECREATION give an estimate of the per cent of successful shooters at the trap who shoot with both eyes open? “Dude” Gilbert of Spirit Lake, Ia, shoots with both eyes open. How is it with Hykes, Elliott, Bud, Grimm and other trap shots?

[letter from] Bert T. Barnes.’

“Here’s the second item I’ve checked out, and here too we deal with a nickname (‘as “Dude” is well known by all’). Interestingly, he is specifically said to be dashing and handsome, and so perhaps 1878 ‘Dude’ Gilbert also received his nickname from being handsome. Barry Popik and Sam Clements have already suggested that ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ likely underlies dude as used by Robert Sale Hill, and perhaps this observation is pertinent also to the Midwestern nickname ‘Dude.’

“Anyway, there is no chance that 1881 P.C. ‘Dude’ Collins was a dude in Robert Sale Hill’s sense. Yes, he was handsome, but no, he wasn’t a brainless Anglomaniac like the 1883ff. dudes were. Here now is the 1881 item in full:

‘Lima, Ohio, Allen County Democrat, February 10, 1881, “A New Man at The Helm”:

P.C. Collins, the dashing and handsome ‘Dude’ of everybody’s acquaintance, has bought out Wm. Lipfert’s saddler and harness shop, and in the future will be found in charge of the concern. An introduction or recommendation to our citizens is not needed in this case, as ‘Dude’ is well known by all, and as he has served a full term at the trade and thoroughly understands his business, and his experience has been such as to make him conversant with the wants of our farmers in the saddling and harness line, all those who call on him can rest assured they will be well received and their wishes satisfied.’

“Although the Allen County Democrat mentioned Dude Collins in four other articles in the four years prior to 1881, they did not use the word dude to refer to anyone or anything else—that is, until 1883. In 1883, both the Allen County Democrat and the Spirit Lake Beacon joined nearly every other newspaper in reporting on the dude craze of 1883, but without reference to local ‘Dudes’ Gilbert or Collins.

“But in any case, the name ‘Dude’ was not unknown in the 1880s. A search of the U.S. Census for 1880 shows that there were over 200 people named Dude or something similar (41 Dudes and 8 Dudeys; 23 Doods and 7 Doodys; 9 Dudds and 2 Duddys; 93 Duds, 15 Dudies, 9 Doodles, and a Dudi); not to mention anyone who may have used their middle name or been given the nickname. Whatever the references to ‘Dude’ Collins and ‘Dude’ Gilbert tell us about their names or nicknames, they do not clearly tell us anything about the word that appeared in 1883.”

To which Cohen adds:

“NewspaperArchive, whatever its considerable benefits, is notorious for inaccurate scans. Just two examples: N’Archive has an article titled “A Discomfited Dude” (Columbia [Indiana] Herald) appearing in 1881, but a check of the newspaper itself shows the story is from 1891. And the Indianapolis Journal (Oct. 31, 1881) has an article about the dethroned Zulu king Cetewayo being held prisoner by the British at Oude Moulen, and N’Archive twice scans this ‘Oude’ as ‘Dude.’”

Cohen concludes: “So the question arises: Can anyone find even a single pre-1883 attestation of the noun dude that pans out? I doubt it but would welcome being proved wrong.”

If you have such proof, or would like to join this etymological expedition, you will find Professor Cohen at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, gcohen@mst.edu.

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