The Big Lebowski, a 1998 crime comedy, is an American ‘cult classic.’ In other words, the film has a group of very loyal fans.
The Big Lebowski tells the story of Jeffrey Lebowski. Lebowski can best be described as a slacker. He shows little interest in - and generally avoids - doing work. He goes by the name, “The Dude.”
In the film, actor Sam Elliott describes Jeffrey Lebowski.
“This Lebowski, he called himself 'The Dude.' Now, 'Dude' - that's a name no one would self-apply where I come from. But, then there was a lot about the 'Dude' that didn't make a whole lot of sense to me.”
Today on Everyday Grammar, we will explore the kind of language ‘The Dude’ uses: casual grammar. We also will explain the meaning of the term dude. It has a much richer history and meaning than you might expect.
Let us begin with some history and definitions.
Unclear origins and definitions
If you look at a dictionary, you will see that the word dude, a noun, is a term for a man or a boy.
But dude did not start out with that definition.
The online search engine Google Ngrams shows the term was used throughout the 1800s. It became more popular toward the end of the 19th century.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says that dude suggested a “fastidious man” -- someone who cares very much about being neat and clean. It adds that research suggests the word is a shortening of “Yankee Doodle,” a well-known American song.
Richard Hill wrote about dude in American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society. He notes that in the 1930s and 1940s, some Mexican-American and African-American men began using the term when speaking with other men. It was sort of an “in-group” term.
Hill went on to note that dude became more common in American English, possibly through the influence of African-Americans in music and popular culture.
Dude eventually became a common word in very casual situations. The term can suggest lazy or effortless behavior. This is why ‘The Dude’ in The Big Lebowski goes by his name – he loves the casual, easy-going life.
But for a term that could show laziness or effortlessness, dude works surprisingly hard to serve many purposes in everyday speech.
Discourse marker and way to show reported speech
Dude has a few surprising uses. Speakers use it as a discourse marker -- a word that helps organize a conversation.
Dude can help organize a conversation by showing when a transition, or change, is coming.
Imagine a young man has just finished telling a story. His friend might say,
“Dude, that reminds of a time when I had a similar experience…”
In this example, the speaker uses dude to show a transition from one story to the next.
A speaker might also report speech by using dude. Imagine the following statement:
“Tommy was like, dude, you shouldn’t do that, it’s a bad idea!”
In this case, the words “dude, you shouldn’t do that, it’s a bad idea!” are reported speech. They show that the speaker is explaining what Tommy said. However, these words are not exactly what was said. Instead, the speaker is reporting on the substance, or basic idea, of what Tommy said.
How do women use dude?
In a study on the word dude, Scott F. Kiesling noted that women often use the term in different ways than men do.
Women sometimes use dude to show concern for or express sympathy with another person. The example Kiesling gives is about a young woman telling a story about a man hitting on her, making dreamy, romantic statements.
Her female friend exclaims,
In this case, the woman uses dude to show support for her friend and anger toward the man. You can hear this in the sound of her voice.
Dude has other uses that we are not able to explore in our report today. But you now have the idea that dude is far more than just a noun meaning “a man or a boy.”
However, a word of warning: be careful when using dude. One probably should not say it when speaking with a supervisor , a co-worker or a teacher.
Understanding the term dude can be useful. When you are watching American movies, or even speaking with young people, you will hear this term a lot. And when you do, you will understand that this seemingly simple term can communicate a lot of information.
We end this report with two questions for you. What other kinds of words show reported speech in casual, informal speaking? What are other common discourse markers in casual, informal speaking? Here’s an idea: we have stories on these and other subjects on our website, learningenglish.voanews.com.
And that’s Everyday Grammar.
I’m John Russell.
And I’m Jill Robbins.
John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
comedy – n. a show meant to make people laugh
fan – n. someone who has a strong interest in a person or thing
self-apply – v. to put on one's self
grammar – n. the study of words and their uses and relationships in a sentence
casual – adj. involving something done without much thought
dictionary – n. a book or guide that lists and defines the words of a language
lazy – adj. not liking to work hard or to be active; in an unconcerned or easy going way
conversation – n. a spoken exchange involving two people or a small group of people; the act of talking in an informal way
remind – v. to cause a person to remember someone or something
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