The mid-18th Century was what you might call ‘peak Grand Tour’, when the trend for young British men visiting the continent’s most cosmopolitan cities and famous sites was at its height.
These men returned home affected by the experience. Their style, their dress, their appetites, had changed, influenced by the places they’d been and the things they’d seen.
Something in particular they picked up a taste for was Italian pasta, which, at the time, was not widely eaten in the British Isles. This is why, many claim, these newly worldly men came to be called ‘Macaronis’, and ‘macaroni’ became an adjective to describe hip young things, or, in contemporary parlance, dandies.
In the 1880s, the New York City press sparked a ‘dude craze’ when, in a matter of months, a series of newspaper articles spread a new term for a certain type of “affected” young man.
A February 1883 piece stated: “For a correct definition of (dude) the anxious inquirer has only to turn to the tight-trousered, brief-coated, eye-glassed, fancy-vested, sharp-toes shod, vapid youth who abounds in the Metropolis at present”.
Dudes were considered useless and languid, just pretending at being refined, and lacking in manliness. A May 1883 article derided them as “exist(ing) without any effort to recompense the world for their living”.
The term ‘dude’ seemed to have been coined purely to ridicule this late-19th Century social tribe.
But how did we get to American dudes from British Macaronis?
Various theories have been put forward for the origin of ‘dude’.
Some claim it comes from dodo, citing as evidence a January 1883 poem by Robert Sale Hill in which the dude’s “stupid airs and vanity” was likened to the extinct bird. Incidentally, Hill’s poem is the first known example of the word ‘dude’ in print.
But a group of dogged etymologists — Gerald Cohen, Barry Popik, and Sam Clements — were convinced of another source: a British military song mocking uncouth colonial New Englanders, ‘Yankee Doodle’.
“Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony; stuck a feather in his cap, and called it Macaroni.”
After more than a decade scouring 19th Century periodicals, the trio’s breakthrough came in an April 1879 edition of the Burlington, Indiana, ‘Weekly Hawkeye’. A piece inside, titled ‘Concord Reminiscences About Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson’, included the following passage:
“Julian Hawthorne [Nathaniel’s son] came home from Italy when a very small boy. He wore long curls, and the Concord boys plagued him in the usual tough way of boys. They called him ‘Sissy’ and ‘Yankee Doodle’, and finally they ridiculed the poor lad till he petitioned for a barber to cut off his locks.”
This confirmed the etymologists’ supposition that ‘dude’ was a shortening of ‘doodle’, and was evidence that ‘Yankee Doodle’ had specifically been used to ridicule a dandy, outside of the well-known song alone.
Another article from May 1881 seemed to strengthen the link, reporting that, ‘dude’, “pronounced in two syllables, as if spelled ‘dood-y’, 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 impersonators of the real fop”.
And so, the experts concluded that ‘Yankee Doodles’, trying to imitate ‘Macaronis’, begat the 19th Century ‘dude’.
Today, the word dude is used as both a term of endearment and an exclamation. It can be a noun of direct address, and depending on tone of voice and inflection, can also be used to mean happiness, sadness, surprise, or disgust, to name a few.
What is interesting to note is the striking similarities between descriptions of 19th Century dudes and our 21st Century hipsters.
Compare the fifth and sixth paragraphs above to modern reports.
Hipsters are variously characterised by their “tight skinny jeans, suit vests, thick glasses frames, tattoos, riding fixed-gear bikes, affecting snobbery for microbrews, and a general more-ironic-than-thou attitude”. (Boston Globe, August 2013)
More cuttingly, they have been summarised as “a tiresome sort of trendy, ostentatious in their perceived rebellion, yet strangely conformist; meticulous in their tastes, yet also strangely limited. All mouth and skinny trousers”. (The Guardian, October 2010)
Consumer anthropologist Andrea Richeson says these are just two examples in a long history of distrust and derision of “young people and their flights of fancy”.
“Young people have always been under the critical gaze of the mainstream media and adults, because they exist in a temporary state of identity formation and economic exclusion. They develop their own approach to life through language, dress and lifestyle”, which, she says, is a good thing.
“While some youth-led trends may perplex or perturb the mainstream, their disruption of the status quo is in fact very beneficial to the progress of society. These shifts in culture drive innovation and encourage us to re-examine outdated social conventions, values, and priorities.”