Historical Snippets

The Dude

True to form, it was while digging around on Trove trying to find something interesting to post for Valentine’s Day (yes, this post has been sitting in draft form for quite a while) that I came across a reference of ladies admiring dudes.

Initially, I laughed. I thought about the word ‘dude’ and the context in which I knew it existed. It’s been around throughout my lifetime and has been spoken by characters such as Bart Simpson. To say hello to someone, you might say, “Hey, dude!” While referring to someone, you might call them a ‘cool dude’. I again thought back to the article and giggled some more. The word in my head was most likely completely at odds to the meaning portrayed in 1885. Ladies of the very proper Victorian era admiring ‘dudes’. Hilarious!

The word ‘dude’ has actually been around for a lot longer than I realised. Far from being a recent invention courtesy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Simpsons, its origin began in the early 1800s and, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, gained in popularity towards the end of the 19th Century before skyrocketing in the late 20th Century.


The above graph mirrors results on Trove with respect to its use in the late 19th Century. In particular, the increase occurred during the 1880s and continued throughout the 1890s. This post will explore the word ‘dude’ during this time period.

 In the Victorian era, a dude was described as…

…a vulgarly-dressed man who tries to dress well and be a gentleman, but can’t; a person who carries himself in a loud manner, usually ambles along in an absurd manner, extending his arms in all sorts of shapes, like a person in livery. [Evening News]

The “Dude” as described by the social Buffon of New York is a man of about twenty-five. […] “His trousers are very tight,” so is his shirt-collar, which is “clerical in form.” His shoes are pointed. His cane has a silver handle. The “Dude” parts his hair in the middle… …the “Dude” also wears a “bang,” or fringe… He never laughs, and never displays any other emotions. [The Bega Gazette and Eden District or Southern Coast Advertiser]

They were further described as men who gave too much attention to their outward appearance as well as “naturally ridiculous” and “deficient in brains“.

If it wasn’t obvious from the above, the word ‘dude’ was not considered a term of endearment, it was an insult.

The Australian newspapers rarely reported on anything positive associated with the dude and while, at times, they offered the occasional in depth explanation as to what constituted a dude, more often than not, the dude was heavily caricatured and severely ridiculed.

Poetry, was clearly a favourite mode of expression.



One rather clever person even created an alphabet shape poem which illustrated in a cartoonish way what the dude was meant to resemble.


On occasion, articles attempting to humorously imitate the dude were printed in the papers. Written as if the dude was speaking and told in the form of a story or anecdote they provide additional information as to how a dude was supposed to sound like. It gives an indication of a speech impediment, with the letter ‘R’ in words always replaced with a ‘W’. They also had a habit of saying ‘aw’ while talking.

Aw – good evening. P’raps you don’t know me. My name’s – aw – Henwy Talbot Cholmondley Bwowne – Bwowne with an “e,” you know. My father’s a gweat swell, and – aw – do you know he thinks I’ve got bwains.

Generally, images without the associated jokes were rarely published. Where there was an illustration printed, it was done so at the expense of the dude.

A device for keeping cool.
Hand Relief
A device for resting a dude’s hands.
A dude with turned up trousers. Neither image looks out of place in today’s fashion.

It’s obvious that the definition of the word ‘dude’ has slowly changed and evolved since the Victorian era. Calling someone ‘dude’ today would definitely not be considered an insult, it’s become complimentary. In looking over these articles, poems and jokes and the derision in which people held the dude, I can’t help but be reminded of our contemporary equivalent: the hipster. While the descriptions of a hipster and a Victorian era dude differ slightly, I can however see similarities in how they were/are often made fun of. It’s interesting to see how the passage of time softens and changes a word and how it’s used. Who knows, perhaps in 100 years’ time the word hipster (like the word ‘dude’) will change and will take on a new meaning of its own.


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