Sometime around eighth grade or so, I started saying ‘Dude.’ The word traveled far to get to me, from its origins somewhere in the uncouth middle America of the 19th century (where it referred to a city slicker out of his league in the wild west), to its deep envelopment in the coastal surfer crowds of the 1960’s (its original meaning already completely wiped out), to its jaunty expansion back inland, toward the ambling valleys and greenswept mountains of its founding. Dude found me embarrassingly innocent in junior high school as the 80’s ended, and, finally, gave me one small way to sound like I wasn’t a child from 1942. I welcomed it like a puppy greets its first growl.
I had a tight-knit group of friends at that point, all of whom were Dude to me. I was Dude to them as well, which was right and proper. As the group of friends expanded, each new friend was Dude in turn, through high school, a time when friends seemed to just make themselves. In time everyone was Dude, even a few of those girls whose charm was casual enough to hide under a guise of friendship for a day or two until you realized you never cared to be just buddies. Dude drew boundaries and pledged allegiances and said whatever kind things teenage boys were never willing to just come out and say.
It stayed with us in college, expanding wherever we could find the right mix of casual camaraderie with any new friend. But even before then it had clearly come under attack. Not long after Dude came to our part of the world, it became tired, overused, and then—the death knell for any good slang word—was found in the mouths of overeager adults seeking esteem in the eyes of youth. When a lady church leader saw us coming down the hall and said “Hey, look at those Cooool Duuuudes!” I wanted to abandon Dude forever.
But Dude never abandoned us. Graduation came, we grew up and most of us moved away, and people expected us to start just saying whatever it was that Dude was letting us not say. So I stopped. I made plenty of friends after that, and hardly any of them was ever Dude. I felt nearly certain that those years after college would make me get rid of it for good; that moving on was the price of growing up. But right at that moment, when it was about to go for good, it didn’t go. I saw my old friends on visits home or visits to each other, and I was surprised to find that they were all still Dude. And Dude meant exactly what it had all the way back when it began.
Dudes (example no. 2)
So I put my trust back where it had always been. Close friends were never made as often as they once had, and they were intermixed with a far larger share of acquaintances and polite friendships than ever before. But every once in a while I still came across a new friend, the real kind, and Dude would come right into the friendship as if it were 1990 all over again.
I am surprised to find myself still using Dude, and still finding new friends deserving the title, some 20 years after Dude came along. The circle of people in my life bearing that honor is small—smaller than it was all those years ago. But it is steady. My co-writers here, a group of old friends, a handful of new old friends, and just three or four companions around the office. When I dropped my first workplace Dude a couple years ago, I realized that the title was neither lightly used nor, I think, lightly received. People who did not grow up in that crucial time may never understand the depths, the multivariate meanings, the subtext and implications of the term, nor the status it conveys. But to those of us who did, Dude remains, strong as it ever was.