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Dude, Katie! Your dress is so cute: why dude became an exclamation.

Although the nationwide use of other California Val-speak words such as like and totally attracts more attention, the spread of dude has actually been more peculiar. Not only has it moved through the population so that it is now very common among most middle-class teens, it has also broadened grammatically so that it can refer to or address people of either gender in its noun form, and it can also be used as a general exclamation, as at the beginning of the title of this article. The widening use of dude has been documented in Scott Kiesling's detailed study in the journal American Speech, which argues that, in addition to what dude may refer to in a literal sense--a person--the word also signals a stance of "cool solidarity," halfway between camaraderie and distance, which is very attractive to young Americans. (1) But such an explanation of the many meanings of dude and the cultural reasons for its widespread adoption does not address another question: Why has the word dude widened grammatically from its original uses as a noun to become a general exclamation? This kind of grammatical expansion clearly does not necessarily accompany the adoption of such slang terms for people. Guy, for instance, is an older and more common near-synonym for dude, but it still cannot be used as an exclamation; even teenagers would not cry out "Guy, Katie! Your dress is so cute!"

What factors favor this kind of widening of grammatical function? Why has dude become an exclamation, while guy has not? To investigate this question, I interviewed a diverse (2) group of American English speakers aged 12-19 from the nearby suburbs of Philadelphia. All the boys except one twelve-year-old said they used dude fairly frequently. (Happily, no one mentioned drug use or even surfing as associated with people who use dude.) The girls agreed that their male counterparts all said dude, but reported that only 30% to 40% of their female peers did so. They explained that those girls who used it were "less girly," more outgoing, louder, more flaky, and more likely to belong to sports teams than those who avoided it.

In addition to formal interviews, I also recorded examples of spontaneous dude use, including the ones that appear as examples in this article, from emails sent among members of an elite New England university's women's Ultimate Frisbee team and from observations made while chauffeuring members of a suburban high school's girls' sports teams.

My young subjects all identified three grammatical functions of dude. We can see all three at work in a sentence I heard uttered in an exchange between young male co-workers in a physical therapy facility: "Dude! I screamed because the dude kissed me, dude." This means something like "Damn! I screamed because the guy kissed me, pal." In such a sentence, dude serves first as an exclamation that does not refer to anything at all, then as a noun referring to a man, and finally as a gender-neutral term of address.

Let us consider these uses one at a time, starting with examples from the college emails that use the historically earliest form, the referential noun: (3)

(1) Some dude from Brown came up to us on old campus tonight and knew who she was!

(2) One of the state park dudes suggested we look into city parks in neighboring towns.

The singular noun dude, as in (1), must be masculine, but the plural, as shown in (2), can include a minority of females. (That is, some of those park rangers could have been women.) Second historically was the gender-neutral term of address, as in

(3) and the plural (4).

(3) Dude, isn't that your mom?

(4) Dudes, my stomach just flipped out on me. Both (3) and (4) were uttered by and addressed to female sports teammates, so we know they are truly gender-neutral. Finally, the last and most recently developed use of dude is the non-referring exclamation, which can appear only in the singular, as in (5) . (4)

(5) Dude, Hilary, good luck with that! But why has this widening happened to dude and not to guy? If we replace dude with guy in the observed examples (1)-(5) to create examples (6)-(10) below, we see that guy acts very much like dude most of the time. (5)

(6) Some guy from Brown came up to us on old campus tonight and knew who she was!

(7) One of the state park guys suggested we look into city parks in neighboring towns.

(8) * Guy, isn't that your mom?

(9) Guys, my stomach just flipped out on me.

(10) * Guy, Hilary, good luck with that! Like dude, guy has to refer to a male in the singular ((6)), and it has also widened to allow the plural referential and address forms ((7) and (9)) to include some females. Guy has not, however, followed dude to become a gender-neutral singular form of address ((8)) or an exclamation ((10)). But why hasn't it?

From an examination of a number of other words, some similar to dude and some to guy, I have concluded that widening into an exclamation like dude requires a combination of two conditions:

First, the candidate for widening must be of the more expected, or "unmarked" gender. In spite of the progress made by the women's movement, the unmarked gender in most arenas of American life is still MALE. So both dude and guy satisfy this first condition for unmarked gender, since they both started as words for males. The second requirement for a candidate for exclamation-hood, though, is that the word's meaning must include a connotation of social power, conventional or not. This second requirement should not surprise us too much if we think a bit about exclamations. Our most common exclamations do not start as nouns referring to groups of ordinary people like dudes or guys at all. Instead, they carry the conventional power of religious references (Lord!) or the anti-establishment power of blasphemy or obscenity (choose your favorite curse word here). Exclamations by nature require strong meanings. Ordinary person-words, such as guy, do not possess such strength, so they have failed to become exclamations.

Dude, however, is better situated than guy for grammatical widening into exclamation because it enjoys not only unmarked gender but also connotations of power, thanks to its message of "cool solidarity." Just googling dude provides an indication of the power imputed to the word. Such a search in July 2004 yielded millions of commercial websites belonging to entrepreneurial dudes, including Pizza Dude, Beer Dude, ArtDude, DrummerDude, the more serious CVSDude, firedude (a resource site for firefighters), Deaf Dude (resources for the deaf), and even the fearless Public Defender Dude. There were far fewer such commercial sites that bothered to include guy, and those that existed were definitely less glamorous: History Guy, Family Guy, Pathology Guy, Fat Guy, Homeless Guy, Sock Guy, and Crazy Drunk Guy.

In order to understand the nature of the power of dude that has led it, but not guy, to become an exclamation, we can consider other similar words which have spread into exclamation uses, like dude, and some which have not, like guy. In the first category, with dude, we find man, boy, and brother. All have the unmarked male gender and represent, more or less (in the case of boy) traditionally socially powerful entities. As predicted, all can be used referentially, as singular or plural terms of address, and, in the singular, as exclamations, just like dude. We can construct (15)-(19), which parallel the examples with dude in (1)-(5):

(15) Some man/boy/brother from Brown came up to us on old campus tonight and knew who she was!

(16) One of the state park men/boys/brothers suggested we look into city parks in neighboring towns.

(17) Man/Boy/Brother, isn't that your mom?

(18) Men/Boys/Brothers, my stomach just flipped out on me.

(19) Man/Boy/Brother, Hilary, good luck with that!

In the second category, with guy, we find woman, girl, and sister, which have not widened to exclamations. (24) cannot be read as starting with an exclamation, as (5) and (19) can:

(20) Some woman/girl/sister from Brown came up to us on old campus tonight and knew who she was!

(21) One of the state park women/girls/sisters suggested we look into city parks in neighboring towns.

(22) Woman/Girl/Sister, isn't that your mom?

(23) Women/Girls/Sisters, my stomach just flipped out on me.

(24) * Woman/Girl/Sister, Hilary, good luck with that!

Dude, then, patterns with other words usually thought of as referring primarily to males and so can be used as an exclamation, while guy patterns with words marked as female, which do not generally have an exclamation form. Unmarked gender seems to be necessary for exclamations because they need to be very general. We can shout "Oh, boy!" in general happy anticipation because MALE is the default gender. "Oh, girl!" does not work the same way because the marked gender of girl makes us expect a literal girl to be involved. The same holds for replacing "Man, what a party!" with "Woman, what a party!" or "Oh, brother, what a mess!" with "Oh, sister, what a mess!" We expect actual women or sisters. Even if we look at bitch, one of the more powerful words in English that is marked female, we find that the exclamation version has to be masculinized: "Bitch, that hurts!" will be heard, not as an exclamation, but as an accusation very rudely addressed to a female. To express a general exclamation, one must say "Sonofabitch, that hurts!" (but not in polite company).

Consequently, we can conclude that unmarked gender is crucial for exclamations, but it is not the only requirement, since the male guy still patterns with the feminine words in not forming an acceptable exclamation. Why should this be? What is the second requirement, after unmarked gender, for widening to exclamation? The preference for dude over guy in commercial websites suggests that guy, though it belongs to the unmarked male gender, lacks some of the connoted power of men, and exclamations require power. Guy, as a slang term with connotations of ordinariness, might just not be as powerful as the traditionally dominant man, brother, or even boy.

I was able to gather evidence for this hypothesis by asking my young subjects about hypothetical heroes called "superguy" and "superdude" and what they would be able to do. All agreed that superdude would be more potent than superguy, younger and very much cooler, as we can see by comparing the lists of representative descriptions from subjects below:

Typical attributes of "superguy" according to teenage subjects

He can't really do anything; he just thinks he can.

Drinks a lot of beer.

Does regular masculine things.

Flies, but more cautiously than superdude or superman.

Not as smart as superman.

Typical attributes of "superdude" according to teenage subjects

Young, cool, very fast.

A little crazy, with weird hair.

Makes people laugh.

Flies to the rescue immediately, maybe recklessly.

This contrast between the conventional and slightly ineffectual superguy on the one hand and the more powerful superdude on the other would lead us to predict that other words for classes of men with connotations of tameness like guy would also fail to widen to exclamations. Indeed, Gentleman! fails to produce a good non-referring exclamation like Man! Guy, then, is not a good candidate for an exclamation, exactly because exclamations serve to express strong meaning, so even MALE words with their unmarked gender are ruled out if what they refer to is too weak or un-cool to be perceived as powerful. In contrast, dude was an excellent candidate for widening into an exclamation because it is very general in its reference, like man, and its position as youth slang with African-American origins lends it a powerful connotation of unconventionality.

Is it ever possible for words denoting females to widen to produce exclamations? Most feminine words--woman, girl, sister, aunt--are ruled out, of course, because of their marked gender. But there is one area in which FEMALE is the unmarked gender, and that is parents, since mothers are still expected to do most of the child-rearing. Thus, the more expected gender for a parent is FEMALE. Consequently, Father!, Dad!, and Poppa! all fail to form the kind of useable exclamations we get with man, boy, and brother. Even though one might expect father, at least, to have a good deal of social power, these words for male parents fail to satisfy the gender condition for exclamations because the unmarked parent is FEMALE.

Curiously, though, common words for female parents, Mother! and Mom!, are just as hopeless as exclamations as these male-parent words or, for that matter, as woman and girl, even though, in the context of parents, their gender is unmarked. But this is because mother and mom do not satisfy our second condition, which requires a connotation of social power, either within the system (man, Lord) or as an outsider (dude, sonofabitch). Mother and mom have only supremely safe and domestic connotations.

However, if we could find a female-parent word that also has outsider connotations, we would expect it to be able to widen into an exclamation, since such a word would have both unmarked gender and social power. I think that momma is just such a word. It is certainly the gender-unmarked term relative to the little-used poppa, and its associations with minority and immigrant communities should save it from the weakness of the tame or familiar. In fact momma does make a passable general exclamation for many speakers. I observed a teenager riding on a city bus with her schoolmates (but not her mother) exclaim "Momma! I'm falling!" when the bus stopped suddenly. Moreover, most of my subjects accepted as normal a version of example (5) with momma substituted for dude: "Oh, Momma, Hilary! Good luck with THAT!"

By introducing two new superheroes to my young subjects, I was able to get some more direct evidence for the idea that the reason that momma works as an exclamation while mom does not is that momma has more powerful connotations. I asked the kids this time what they thought "supermom" and "supermomma" would be able to do. They uniformly saw supermom as the word is widely used, to mean a conventional mother who cooks, cleans, drives carpool, and generally raises a family while working outside the home. One girl even said that if supermom tried to fly, she would probably fall, because she's "old and tired." The most super power attributed to supermom was having "a minivan that seats twelve." According to the kids, supermomma shares supermom's abilities to cook, clean, and work hard. But her cooking is tastier and her cleaning more thorough than supermom's. She is also younger, tougher, more fun, and harder-working. Several subjects volunteered with admiration that "no one messes with supermomma," and some African American teens responded, "What can supermomma do? Pretty much anything!" Once again, the name for the more powerful superhero serves as the more successful general exclamation. Momma seems to have gained its power through the outsider status it has attained through its associations with minority and immigrant communities.

However, other sources of social power, such as religion, can also accord feminine words enough power to enable them to widen to exclamations. Thus, while Mother! cannot be used by itself as a general, non-referring exclamation, Mother of God! can be, because the religious reference, like momma's outsider status, confers the necessary power.

We can probably never explain exactly why dude has caught on as an exclamation so quickly. We can, however, see that it was well qualified for such grammatical widening because, first, it referred originally to individuals of the unmarked gender, so it was able to expand its range of reference easily and come to have non-specific gender. Then, second, it acquired the connotations of power required for successful exclamations. It did this through its associations with American subcultures that are at once marginalized and widely admired and imitated: African Americans, California beach boys and girls, and, now, the general population of middle-class teens. Other new exclamations should follow this pattern; look for the spread of Dawg! or Baby! in the future.


(1.) Kiesling, Scott F. 2004 "You've Come a Long Way, Dude: A History," American Speech 69.3: 321-327.

(2.) I had fourteen subjects, seven male, seven female, and three African American, three Asian American, and eight European American, mirroring the makeup of the community. The subjects' judgments about the uses and connotations of dude were remarkably uniform.

(3.) The OED Online describes the origins of dude as "a factitious slang term which came into vogue in New York about the beginning of 1883, in connexion with the 'aesthetic' craze of that day. Actual origin not recorded. 1. A name given in ridicule to a man affecting an exaggerated fastidiousness in dress, speech, and deportment, and very particular about what is aesthetically 'good form'; hence, extended to an exquisite, a dandy, 'a swell'. 2. A non-westerner or city-dweller who tours or stays in the west of the U.S., esp. one who spends his holidays on a ranch; a tenderfoot. 3. [1993] More generally, any man who catches the attention in some way; a fellow or chap, a guy. Hence also approvingly, esp. (through Black English) applied to a member of one's own circle or group."

(4.) Though there was little reported variation by race in total use of dude within the community, African Americans reported favoring the referential use shown in (1) and (2) over the other uses in (3)-(5).

(5.) The asterisks mark examples that the subjects would not accept as sounding right or having the intended meaning.

Muffy Siegel

Merion, Pennsylvania

[Muffy Siegel researches and teaches semantics in the English department at Temple University in Philadelphia. She receives valuable help in data collection from her two daughters and teaching, assistance from her ventriloquial bird dummy.]
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Siegel, Muffy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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