There are but a handful of words in our esteemed lexicon that have traveled the circuitous path from slang to colloquialism to vaunted positioning in the hallowed papyrus pages of the Oxford Dictionary.
"Cool" resides here possibly because of its panoply of meanings. Defined as "fashionably attractive or impressive," it still bears the dreaded "informal" moniker and places in third among meanings. (One of today's vast array of equivalents, "dank," still has its original definition still attached. Although "hangry" made it.)
Next up is "Man." Once a term for the entire human species. The French and German Romantics whittled it down from the Olde English and Old Norse as those bearing a Y chromosome. ("Wif" was Old English for woman, and to credit the Germans they did push for a gender-neutral use of the word). However, it was not until the 20th century that "man" came into heavy use being paired with one's occupation (i.e. fireman, mailman) only to be released into the vast estuary of the rivers of slang, colloquialism and regional dialect. It seems the words heard the loudest are the most heard.
"Man!" became a valuable exclamation from everyone from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (who went from "always getting their man" to possibly the first published use of the interjection in 1911 ("Don't get miffed about it, man") to the scruffy jazzers and beatniks who used their coded language to better identify the members of their subculture. Ironically, the word for their social status, Beat, did not stick around (nor really did "square," "dig," and "cats," which are mostly ironically used today).
It is somewhat apropos that the shabby beatniks of the ‘50s would give way to the stylish and elegant "dandies" of the ‘60s. "Dandy," being derived from George S. Cohan's "Yankee Doodle Dandy," led to the middle word "Doodle" falling into similar use. But hey, slang is truly at its best when it is monosyllabic, so it was quickly shortened to "Dude." The first true uses of "dude" were of an unkind derivation, as cowboys code for the "city slicker." (Especially when said urbanite tried to dress for the Western life, at which point they were "duded up"). However, Dude soon grew up and left the ranch to become a word for "tourist." Its popularity quickly assured as a "nice perjorative," several of what we call haters tried to expand the practice to encompass "dudine" and "dudettes" only to quickly realize they were duds (unrelated).
As it spread in popularity from coast-to-coast, "Dude" became a gender-free word and with that the surfers were the next to adopt and adapt the colloquialism for their own use. By 1969, the modern use of "Dude" appears in its first film, "Easy Rider," where Peter Fonda interpolates, "Dude means nice guy. Dude is a regular person."
Off we go, our word becomes a greeting (whose middle long U can be extended as one wishes), a term of endearment or a vague noun to describe other people. Since, it joined terminology it has been used by turtles (heroes in a half shell), teenagers, grown-up teenagers ("Party On, Wayne!") and even the basis for a religion (Dudeism).
What was once a slightly uncouth term to use if you were nowhere near the water is now accepted universally. This case is easily illustrated (but in the name of Oliver Wendell Holmes, please DO NOT) by shouting "Hey, Dude!" in a room full of people. Those from all genders, all backgrounds, all walks of life will turn around. To borrow from the Dude on high, Jeffery Lebowski, "The Dude abides."
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T- BONE's Records and Cafe and a GED instructor.