Lots of trans folks have complicated feelings about the word dude. Helen Zaltzman from the Allusionist joins me to help unpack the word’s history and usage. A few trans friends also join me to talk about why we love or hate it.
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Callie: [00:00:00] Hey friends, there’s something super neat happening this weekend. And next that you should know about April 25th and May 2nd. A virtual scifi convention called Holocon is happening at twitch.tv/lambdaquadrant. Lambda Quadrant is an organization I’m involved with that is put together to raise money for charities and fandom communities.
We’ve got Chase Masterson and Nicole Deborra from Star Trek on board. We’re doing panel discussions about LGBTQ representation in Star Trek. What Star Trek taught us about dealing with adversity, convention 101 and lots of other things. It’s free and it’s going to be streaming live at twitch.tv/lambdaquadrant, starting at 4:00 PM. Pacific 7:00 PM. Eastern on Saturday, April 25th and Saturday May 2nd. I’m going to be doing some panels both days. So come check it out. Hang out with this. Have some fun. See you there. Shout out to Else, Chelsea, Carson, L.M., Chloe, McKinsey, and Maddie for becoming new patrons this week. I deeply love and appreciate you all.
Thank you friends. My name is Callie Wright, and this is Queersplaining. There was about a year between me coming out to my friends and being able to present myself as Callie a hundred percent of the time. I traced most of my anxiety back to this point in my life. I find myself walking through stores, being hyper aware.
Of the people around me I’d noticed what they were saying, what their body language was saying. No one was ever like in my face, mean to me, but I heard lots of whispers as I would walk by. One thing I heard more than once was, “Gross. That’s a dude.” Or some variant of that. That’s a dude. To this day, little alarm bells go off in my head when I hear that word directed at me by someone, I don’t know. I grew up in the Midwest and played music, most of my teens and twenties. So I use dude in ways that you might expect. I was a dude. All my guy, friends were dudes, anything cooler. Interesting was DUDE! I never quite got to the point of calling my women, friends, dude, that one always felt weird to me.
Obviously, after coming out, the context changed a bunch, lots of trans folks have really complicated feelings about the work dude and I’m one of them. So today on the show, we’re going to get to know the word a little better. And when I think about wanting to get to know words and languages better, there is one person who comes to mind.
Helen: [00:02:23] Am I allowed to swear on your show?
Callie: [00:02:25] Absolutely.
Helen: [00:02:26] I call bullshit on the gender neutrality of this.
Callie: [00:02:28] This is Helen Salzman. She hosts a podcast called the Allusionist. And as a person who spends a ton of time thinking about language, she’s got some feelings of her own on this one.
Helen: [00:02:38] Broadly. I not a huge fan of terms where people say, well, they’re gender neutral now. You can say dude’s about all genders. You can say guys about all genders, because the terms that people say are gender neutral in that way, always originated as male specific terms. And it doesn’t happen the other way round where you’re like, Oh, gals is now gender neutral. Ladies is gender neutral. If you say that about male identified people that tends to be insulting.
Callie: [00:03:05] Personally, my favorite rhetorical test for this is when some obnoxious guy who’s oozing toxic masculinity is going on and on and on about the context, free gender neutrality of the word, dude, you just ask.
Okay, cool. Do you fuck dudes?
Helen: [00:03:19] Exactly! It’s a great way to test neutrality. Isn’t it?
Callie: [00:03:24] So let’s, let’s talk about where dude came from. Let’s talk about the etymology. What do you know?
Helen: [00:03:28] I was very interested to find out about this because, it kind of meant the opposite of the association. It has now is this sort of macho guy term that’s inverted commas, gender neutral, sorry to harp on about it.
As far as anyone can tell. Because the problem with researching slang is that you don’t often have very concrete evidence to go on. It’s usually in speech way before it’s in writing and linguistics researchers and etymologists and lexicographers need the written citations showing a word in use, and they often don’t have them in slang until it’s a bit late.
So. There’s a couple of origins that are possible. And one is that there was this word, duds, you know, like clothing is still a slang word kind of now. that’s from the 13 hundreds. And then it sort of became ragged and scruffy codes a couple of hundred years later. And you had dud man or dude, man, which was a scarecrow made of raggedy clothes in the 1670s.
So people were like, Oh, maybe it was cause of that, but I don’t really see the leap from scarecrow to dude. Whereas in the 1880s, you had these hipster guys, essentially the Yankee doodle dandies. And these were guys who, you know, you know, from the song, the macaroni macaroni was also this word for young feminine leaning men who were really dressed up. And I think it was specifically a very East coast, U S city type of trend. So you had these Yankee doodles and then they started using the shortening dude. A spelt with a double O at the time. And so they were foppish, they were considered a feminine. And then the word headed West in that you have a lot of East coast people going to ranches in the West for this sort of wild West experience.
And they were called dude ranchers because they were supposed to appeal to these dudes who were still these foppish people from East coast cities. But then you have the people on the dude ranchers who are like more like Cowboys or Butch guys on horses. And that’s where. That connotation of dude came in.
I think it switched it leaped from one kind of person to the other.
Callie: [00:05:47] That’s so wild.
Helen: [00:05:48] Right? I was very surprised.
Callie: [00:05:51] There’s also another thread we can follow through the 1930s and forties Mexican-American Pachucos and black Zoot Suiters took to using the word dude to refer to each other as an ingroup term.
And these were groups of folks who had a style very much centered on their clothing and it developed. Into more of a general term of address among the men in those groups as tends to happen. It made its way from there into the broader culture, through black music.
Helen: [00:06:16] Apparently the first sort of big moment of it appearing on film was in 1969 in Easy Rider wear, which haven’t seen, where Peter Fonda’s character explains.
To Jack Nicholson’s character. That dude means nice guy, dude means regular sort of person. So even though, as recently as the 1950s, it was still used to mean, you know, these, these kinds of foppish tourists by the late sixties, it was like, Oh, a regular kind of guys, guy. And I guess that film would have been quite influential to a lot of filmmakers who, came up in the seventies and eighties.
Callie: [00:06:54] I think that makes sense.
Helen: [00:06:55] I mean, I’m speculating. I haven’t done the, the master’s thesis. I’m over eight in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And you have the Jeff Spicoli character. Who’s this surfer dude. And at the time, were you supposed to think that he’s kind of a useless Dick for being like that? Or are you supposed to think he’s rebelling against the capitalism of the eighties and he doesn’t want to be part of that culture?
Callie: [00:07:17] I think the latter, I mean, in fairness, it’s been a while since I’ve seen that movie, but if I remember right, he was definitely positioned as like the hero in the movie.
Helen: [00:07:25] And then also bill and Ted’s excellent adventure uses dude a lot. And you’re supposed to think they’re young and stupid or are you.
Callie: [00:07:33] And this illustrates some of the tension in the word, right?
It’s connection to surfer culture is very much about the sort of laid back, easy going attitude. It positions you in opposition to this hardworking careerism of the eighties, sort of a rebellion of chilling out.
I was delighted to find out there’s actually been some research done on the various usages of the word, dude. In 2004, Scott, Kiesling a linguistics professor at the university of Pittsburgh, published a paper just called Dude. That goes over some of the history Helen and I talked about earlier, but it also has some hard data about who uses dude and how they use it in different.
Situations it’s information is binary gender, because of course it is. I wasn’t able to find data on the subject. That’s not. So in spite of its limitations, there is some interesting stuff, though. Kiesling assigned his students a task over the course of three days record the first 20 instances of the word, dude.
That you hear record the entire utterance as best you can remember and record the gender and ethnicity of the speaker, the addressee, the relationship between them and the situation in which the word was used, they collected 519 examples and Kiesling assembled them into what he calls the dude corpus.
The data showed what I already generally thought was true. Most commonly it’s used with men talking to other men over 300 of the recorded uses were men talking to other men far less, often, less than a hundred times where women using it to address other women and its use across genders was slightly less common still.
Helen: [00:09:19] There’s a few things that that brings to mind. And one is that the word is used to denote. In group. And that’s quite a common linguistic thing where you use these words quite freely, but only with certain people or certain kind of circles that you move in to delineate those circles. So I can imagine that if you used it between the genders binary as described in this paper, but as you and I both know, are not in reality, the understanding of it would change.
And maybe if the men in this study used it for women freely, it might be perceived as an insult because they were implying those women are masculine and maybe the women don’t use it for the men because it would imply more equality than perhaps it was there. Like they’re not on dude terms with these guys.
I just said guys, but I meant it in a, you know, with the men, right. Men in the study because to me guys is not really a gender neutral term either.
Callie: [00:10:16] What the data showed was that the closer you were to someone, the more likely you were to use the term for them right up to the point of a romantic relationship.
Kiesling his conclusion here is that the word serves to express a sort of closeness, but not intimacy. He calls it cool solidarity. In a different study of a college fraternity. Kiesling identified five specific uses of the word.
James: [00:10:42] One. Discourse structure marking:
Callie: [00:10:45] Sweet and savory is a wonderful combination. And fruit is healthy for you, dude. Pineapple belongs on pizza.
James: [00:10:53] Two. Exclamation:
Callie: [00:10:55] Dude, holy shit!
James: [00:10:57] Three. Confrontational stance attenuator:
Callie: [00:11:01] I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, dude.
James: [00:11:02] Four. Affiliation and connection:
Callie: [00:11:06] Oh, you’re my fucking dude.
James: [00:11:08] Five. Agreement:
Callie: [00:11:10] Dude, yes.
So like a lot of language, the way trans folks interact with this can be pretty unique. Personally, I tend to be okay with it, but only under very specific circumstances. Some folks do use it with the intent of being gender neutral and really do use it as a term of address for everyone. If that’s true. I’m okay with it. If your in group is a group, I want to be a part of, I want you to use the language that marks me as part of that group is pretty common on my roller Derby team.
For example, I know and love these folks, them using it for me, signals that I’m part of their circle. So it’s affirming to me some random asshole on the street though. Not a chance. The only time I really use it to identify other people is when I’m talking about a man, I don’t like as in this fucking dude over here.
But I’m one person with a singular experience. And of course my feelings, aren’t the only ones that matter here. So I asked a few folks with different experiences from mine to chime in and share their thoughts too.
Kat: [00:12:12] Hi, my name is Kat. I don’t really know what my pronouns are yet, but I’m going by They / Them right now. Just try to test it out. Cause I’m not really sure I’m trying to figure stuff out, but I felt like I was non binary for years. So. But I’m thinking it’s more so like gender fluid, first of all, I will say it’s not gender neutral.
Like the way that people think it is, it definitely is gendered. But, I tend to like it just because like, for me personally, it’s like, it seems like affirming to me because I’m not a girl, I guess that it’s either like, Hey girl, or it’s Hey dude. You know, like that’s kind of like the only options we’re given a lot of times. And I seem to like it a lot more than that.
Callie: [00:12:57] Do you have any kind of memory of maybe the first time it was used for you in a way that felt affirming to you?
Kat: [00:13:04] I know that it was really early. I don’t have like a very specific memory of it. But I remember that it was really early. And I remember that I started calling myself that a lot and like my close friends, I stopped using it as kind of like a catchall a little while ago, just cause it’s. Yeah. my ex girlfriend is a trans woman and we’re still really good friends.
And, I asked her how she felt about it and she didn’t care, but I still felt weird with it. Just. cause of other people have said, so I stopped. I’ll still use it around like a couple of my friends that, we use it together, but it’s not like a gender neutral thing anymore. I started saying y’all a lot more and stuff like that.
Mist: [00:13:48] My name’s Mist. My pronouns are they them, and I identify as queer / genderqueer. The main reason why I use it, is it’s A. For our generation, especially, it’s like a very awesome word for endearing without having to get like too mushy or anything like that. So that’s why, like, maybe that’s what the issue is because it’s masculine and because it’s masculine, it’s not mushy.
But, as a nonbinary person was, you know, a pussy, I, it makes me feel more valid to use vocabulary that’s masculine leaning because I sound so feminine. so I really don’t mind, but I also like. I can totally understand why somebody would not like that. Like, cause I do not like it when people come up to me and be like, Hey girl, or girly and stuff like that, you know, it’s the Midwest. So it’s really hard to avoid that. I mean, when it all in doubts y’all is, is the best, but I definitely don’t mind, dude.
Callie: [00:14:50] Do you remember the first time someone maybe use that for you in a way that felt affirming?
Mist: [00:14:54] It’s usually with other men, especially cismen. More specifically, if they start calling you bro. And like, dude, that means you’re, you’re, you’re, accepted in a way.
Kage: [00:15:07] My name is Kage. I use he / him pronouns, but have to put myself as I prefer trans masculine. I don’t really identify with a binary, but if I had to like parse it down, I’d say just, just male. My older brother was 17 years older than me. So growing up in like, the nineties and whatnot, and dude was a huge thing because all like the surfer movies and, and you know, everything in pop culture and everything was pushing toward like West Coast, kind of that notion of like, dude, man, bro, everything’s cool.
The way that us in the Midwest kind of romanticized. How it is in the West. I remember like my older brother and his friends, like always being like dude and, and whatever. And, and I want to say the first time was probably when I was about seven or eight and it just felt really cool to be like part of this thing, you know?
And. This is way bigger than gender, you know, it’s about being accepted, but just having that word being applied to me just felt so I don’t know, it felt like I was being seen and then like invited into the fold. I didn’t think about it, you know, critically until, you know, obviously years and years later, when I started thinking about, gender and whatnot and how somebody could definitely feel the opposite way. And it made me kind of sad, you know, that I could find joy in something like that, that, that could upset someone else. And that’s when I just kind of said, well, it’s more important for me to just not, you know.
So I’ve always believed in the concept of, having emotional correctness, when we’re speaking or listening, to understand when you have somebody speaking to you, what is their intent behind what they’re saying? because we all know the intent is not as important as impact at all, but, you know, for like people that care about me, if I know somebody that they use, dude in the same way that a lot of people use, man, I’m like, Aw, man, that sucks. You know, just as like an exclamatory.
I think dude is totally fine as being a thing, but it’s always like a know your audience situation. Like I would never, in a million years, refer to somebody as dude, if you know, they, one, I didn’t know them. And two, if they were expressing to me, especially if they’re expressing to me, Hey, I don’t like that word. It makes me feel some sort of way. and having, having. Some, some semblance of, you know, the fact that male privilege is a thing and being perceived as male is a privilege in and of itself in our society.
Things that are generally words that are generally used, or that is the context that the words are usually used for. So like, dude, man, bro, all of those, I think we should all just stop using them in a blanket. If it’s an in group thing, if it’s a group of friends and you all refer to each other that way, that’s fine.
But you can’t assume that someone else outside of that is going to understand. The intent that you have, and the impact is not going to be within your control. So it’s much easier to just not. You know.
Callie: [00:18:32] Of course context matters. There’s far more history here than could be covered in a single podcast episode.
This is not a shocking or surprising conclusion to come to you. And I think it’s probably one of the words that’s best deployed only if you know, the person you’re speaking to and you know, they’re okay with that. Whatever our enjoyment of the word might be. Doesn’t override someone else’s discomfort with it in some contexts it’s hurtful and some contexts it’s quite affirming.
Both of these things are valid, especially when it comes to trans folks and how we navigate the world in terms of our gender. Just respect folks. That’s what it always comes down to big things to Helen Salzman. You can check out her podcast, the Allusion, that’s an illusionist with an a, at theallusionist.org. It’s a wonderful podcast about language and its history and quirkiness. She also makes a Q and A show called Answer Me This and a Veronica Mars recap show called Veronica Mars Inestigations. Also, thanks to Kage, Kat, and Mist for sharing their thoughts and perspectives on the word, dude. And thanks to James Croft for providing my very academic sounding British voiceover in the middle segment.
James makes a podcast called Ethics and Chill. That’s all about the ethical issues raised in pop culture. I love James and I love his podcast and it’s one you should check out too. And last, but certainly not least. Thank you, my friend for listening. If you want to help keep this thing going, please consider heading to patreon.com/queersplaining and making a per episode donation to support the show.
It’s what helps keep the lights on these days for Celes, Wedge, and I, and every little bit is appreciated. A share or a shout out on social media. It goes a long way too. Before I go, I want you to know that if you’re lost, you’re hurting, you’re scared, if you feel like no one cares and no one understands, you need to know there’s a community out here that loves you cares for you knows that you’re capable of amazing things and that you are worthy of love.
If you’re struggling, please, don’t be afraid to reach out. Until next time, friend. My name is Callie Wright and this is Queersplaining.