Dude, Where’s My Dude ? Dudelicious Dissection, From Sontag to Spicoli

Why dude , now? It’s not just that Ashton Kutcher, the demigod of Dude ever since Dude, Where’s My Car? , has become a Demi-god of another sort. It’s not just the rise of Keanu Reeves (who revived “dude” in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure ) as Neo-Dude. There’s more to it, dude.

Back in 1964, Susan Sontag wrote an eye-opening essay in Partisan Review called “Notes on ‘Camp.'” Partisan Review , alas, is gone, but camp is here to stay, and perhaps the time has come to begin to assemble some notes on a similarly recondite phenomenon: Let’s call it “Notes on ‘Dude.'” Because recent evidence suggests that Dude, too-Dude in its most expansive, capital-D sense-is here to stay as well.

In some ways, the impetus for studying Dude culture is dual: I feel I’ve grown up (or down) with “dude,” having first heard it from the single surfer dude in my high school and then the single surfer dude in my class at Yale (he dropped out freshman year to party with the waves). But there’s also a similar motive to that which prompted Ms. Sontag to investigate the resonances of camp. She opened her “Notes on ‘Camp'” essay with these two sentences:

“Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility-unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it -that goes by the cult name of ‘Camp.'” (My italics.)

Similarly, Dude has been named, but has Dude-as sensibility-been adequately described? If camp is “a variant of sophistication,” Dude might be called a variant of unsophistication . And yet also “hardly identical with it.” In fact, it can be, when used ironically as it often is here in New York City, a sophisticated take on unsophistication.

Why Dude now? Well, for one thing, what Ms. Sontag documented (or perhaps created) was a cultural moment when camp-which she described as an underground, mainly gay subcultural sensibility-crossed over into the mainstream. And I’d argue that the moment has come when, like it or not, we have to acknowledge that Dude-in what you might call its ecstatic Jeff Spicoli sense-has crossed over. Crossed over in two ways: First, it has made the transition from transitory subcultural slang term to mainstream cultural-or at least linguistic-phenomenon of a sort.

And what’s more-and this is what prompted this essay-like camp, Dude has “crossed over” in a gendered way as well.

And so perhaps, it might be appropriate to begin these tentative notes with:

1) THE SEXUAL TRANSMIGRATION OF DUDE

I think this is one chief indication that Dude is here to stay: the fact that it now can refer to both men and women. It’s true that there still may be some salons and dinner parties-mainly in certain clueless precincts of academia-where “dude” will still not be uttered at all. And it’s more likely you’ll hear “dude” uttered downtown, or on the L train, than in the back of Town Cars and Navigators. But outside of those sad figures who cloister themselves off from the pleasures of pop culture, “dude” is not just a part of the language-Dude is a whole discourse. And what’s more, Dude-ism, once mainly male, is now being used self-referentially by women as well.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened. I may have been aware of it in a subliminal way, but I know the precise moment the conscious realization that “dude” had transcended gender came to me. It was in the second week of May; I was in a car somewhere off a freeway exit in Chicago with two journalism students who had picked me up at O’Hare to take me to a guest-lecture gig at Medill Journalism School. We seemed to be lost and, as I recall, the woman in the back seat said to the woman at the wheel, “Dude, I think we’re going the wrong way.”

Dude! Sweet! (as they say in Dude, Where’s My Car? ) These were smart, well-educated, self-aware women in their 20’s, and they thought nothing of calling each other “dude.” They said it was a fairly common usage. Well, maybe with a little of the in-built irony that “dude” has for all who have used it post–Jeff Spicoli.

Little did I know that I was witnessing a phenomenon that was, in fact, a hot topic among lexicographers and linguists, according to my friend Jesse Sheidlower, the astute North American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary : the sexual transmigration of “dude.” Where once “dude” had applied mainly-only-to men, “there’s a lot of discussion now,” Jesse said, among his colleagues in the word-study business, over this issue: whether “dude” (in a descriptive rather than prescriptive sense) could now generally be said to apply to both men and women. (The way “babe” has crossed over from the other direction, you might say.)

The online edition of the American Heritage Dictionary , for instance, has already made the leap and recognized the duality of “dude” when it comes to gender, defining it (in 3.b., “dudes”) as “Persons of either sex.”

Oxford was still studying the matter, Jesse said, although he checked the O.E.D. ‘s on-line data base and found a citation for “dude” applied to a woman as early as the mid-70’s. And one in the mid-80’s, in Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero , in which a young woman tells her mother, “No way, dude.”

These were relatively isolated instances, but it seemed like it was just a matter of time before the O.E.D. would give “dude” its due as a dual-gender appellation. (Or as Aerosmith might say, “Dude [sometimes] looks like a lady.”)

The triumph of Dude is more than about a single word. It’s about an entire sensibility, a worldview. To understand it one needs …

2) A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ON DUDE: Featuring the original ‘aesthetic craze.’

Everybody thinks “dude ranch” came first and was somehow the origin. But whence came the dude in “dude ranch”? Before the dude-ranch dude there was dude as dandy, the dude as an urban aesthete; it was the urbanity of dude that made the dude-ranch dude dude-ish. The print version of the unabridged O.E.D. curiously calls “dude” originally “a factitious slang term.” “Factitious slang”? I think what they’re suggesting is something like what happened when the guys who made Swingers tried to make “money” a slang term for “cool.” God, was that a disaster. Totally embarrassing, dude. Why did “dude” succeed while “money” died a well-deserved death? It may have something to do with its origins.

“Dude” may have been made up “factitiously” (I’d like to know the dude who did it), but according to the O.E.D. , it first came into vogue in New York about 1883, in connection with what the O.E.D. calls “the ‘aesthetic craze’ of the day.”

“Aesthetic craze”: Don’t you love it, dude? This is important to remember in considering the way “dude” has evolved, the way it’s come to be used a century after its origin, the aesthetic dimension of the word. Yes, it can be used simply to refer to a person or class of persons-the way I first heard it in my suburb in reference to “surfer dudes.” But more interesting is the way its origins in an “aesthetic craze” can be linked to the way “dude” (or rather ” Duuuude! “) had become a one-word expression of awe and wonder. A simple awestruck Duuuude! as a way of expressing aesthetic approbation of, a crazed mutual aesthetic appreciation of, something someone says, or some phenomenon someone points out. An acknowledgment of shock and awe-or, in some cases, schlock and awe.

A friend of mine pointed out that what “dude” users (and abusers) have in common is transport . Originally, a dude was a dandy on horseback; contemporary dudes use other means of transport-skateboards, surfboards, snowboards and the like.

There’s an interesting convergence here with Ms. Sontag’s exegesis of the origins of camp, one that also goes back to the aesthete and the dandy.

“Camp sees everything in quotation marks,” she wrote. “As the dandy is the 19th century’s surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture …. The old-style dandy hated vulgarity, the new-style dandy … appreciates vulgarity.”

Dude, you might say-Dude with a capital D-is another answer to the question of how to be an aesthete in an age of mass culture, because Dude is a way of bringing a conscious unsophistication-an ironical unsophistication, an unsophistication in quotation marks, a sophisticated unsophistication-to an appreciation of popular culture.

At least that’s the way I heard it in the exchange between the Medill J-school women; that’s the way I use it; that’s the way I hear it here in New York-where, for instance, the single most prolific utterer of “dude” I know works at The New York Review of Books .

Of course, there still exists a kind of pure “dude,” a non-ironic use of the word. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) One could almost say that there has been, in the history of “dude” from its “factitious” origins in 1883, a dialectic of Dude, a dialectic of sophistication and unsophistication. Which really calls for …

3) A BRIEF HISTORY OF DUDE, PART ONE: THE MYSTERY OF THE TRANSITION

The real mystery of Dude history is the Mystery of the Transition. How did the mildly mocking “dude” of “dude ranch,” a direct descendant of the 1883 urban dandy, become the “dude” of surfer talk-a respectful form of direct address, as in “Party on, dude.” A woman I know offered this theory of how “dude” migrated from dude-ranch mockery to the surfer term of mutual respect: “Dude” was originally a mockery of “gentlemanliness,” you might say, or gentility, and surfers later rescued the gentlemanliness from the mockery.

When transformed, or inverted in subcultural slang-in this case, California surfer talk-the original irony was itself ironized, and, in the way a double negative can make a positive, it became thereby a mostly sincere, slightly arch term of gentlemanly respect , not mockery. What made the transformation possible was the presence of that gentlemanly dandyism in both usages. Surfer dudes decided to own it, own their elaborate subcultural aesthetic dandyism, the way some ethnic groups believe they can own words that were originally derisive slurs.

In a way, to address someone as “dude” became a sign of ironic respect for that person’s ironic sensibility.

4) A BRIEF HISTORY OF DUDE, PART TWO: THE DISAPPEARANCE AND RE-EMERGENCE OF DUDE

O.K., so “dude” made the transition sometime in the 60’s to a term of respect-but for a while it just stayed there, sort of dormant, a regional subcultural term, kept alive in certain rock lyrics (“All the Young Dudes”).

For a while, it looked like “dude” might die out or become antiquated like “groovy” (as opposed to “cool,” which still survives in various ironic flavors). But then “dude” began to re-emerge in the late 70’s, less as a term of address-“Hey, dude!”-but as, once again, an aspect of an “aesthetic craze,” so to speak.

Which brings us to what you might call the “whoa, dude” connection-and then the internalization of “whoa” by “dude.”

I seem to recall being alerted to this transition in 1980 or ’81 by a story that appeared in New West Magazine , by the gifted writer Charlie Haas. As I recall, it was one of the first to document the Grateful Dead cult. But what stayed on my mind was Mr. Haas’ hilarious but prescient opening riff on what he called “the whoa dudes”: guys who used “Whoa, dude!” to begin-and end-just about every conversational response, much the same way that Valley Girls were starting to use “like” and “totally” as all-purpose conversational punctuation. (And by the way, a whole other essay could be devoted to the way Valley-speak has, in many ways, survived and gone national-as the unexpected triumph of Legally Blonde like SO TOTALLY attests.)

In any case, what the “whoa, dude” phenomenon documented was the way “dude” had made another crucial transition. It was the moment when saying “dude” was no longer just a way of addressing a person; it began to be an all-encompassing acknowledgment of mutual wonder, in that elongated form-” Duuuude! “-where the awestruck “whoa” is encompassed within the elongated “Duuuude!” so that it becomes a mutual communion with the wonder of it all, so to speak.

Still, the real transition-the moment when dude went “worldwide” (to use a contemporary term), the moment when Dude “blew up” (to use a persistent 80’s phrase)-was the release of one film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High , and the introduction of one now-nearly-mythic character ….

5) THE DEMIGODS OF DUDE, PART ONE: JEFF SPICOLI

I’m a big fan of Sean Penn’s serious work, from the underrated At Close Range to his direction of The Crossing Guard -but really, Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is likely to become his one immortal American character, almost like Huck Finn or Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

What made Jeff Spicoli great? Well, he was the pitch-perfect synergistic fusion of the four wellsprings of late-70’s Dude culture: surfer, stoner, suburban Valley-speak and biker-rocker dude. (Remember Spicoli’s dream, which concludes with his planning to “wing on over to London and jam with the Stones”?) But more than that, it was the amazing, oblivious good nature that Mr. Penn, as Spicoli, radiated. The Joy of Dude.

6) DEMIGODS OF DUDE, PART TWO: KEANU REEVES IN BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE

I’d almost forgotten that Bill and Ted came before Wayne and Garth and Wayne’s World . And that “Wayne’s World”-both the Saturday Night Live sketch concept and the films that followed-was a pure cop from Bill and Ted . And that it was Keanu Reeves who immortalized the phrase “Party on, dude,” not Mike Myers. These are important facts. And although Bill and Ted doesn’t really hold up the way Fast Times does, it was Bill and Ted that introduced the aesthetic category known as “Excellent!” into the Dude lexicon, even before Bart Simpson and Mr. Burns made “dude” and “excellent” partners in crime.

7) DEMIGODS OF DUDE, PART THREE: LEBOWSKI vs. SLACKER

I have to admit, I really, really disliked The Big Lebowski when I first saw it. But it grew on me. Not to the cult status it’s attained for some: Did you know the Second Annual Big Lebowski Festival is about to take place somewhere in Kentucky on July 19 (see http://www.lebowskifest.com)? Note to editor: Dude, here’s your peg! My problem with Lebowski at first was that Jeff Bridges gives slacker slovenliness a bad name-while the earlier Slacker gives it a good name. (See my column on that genuinely great Dude film, Observer, Aug. 13, 2001) Slacker , of course, is more explicitly philosophical and aesthetic than Lebowski , but lately I’ve come to think there is something likable about the Coen brothers’ film, almost despite the Dude element.

What was irritating to me was the Jeff Bridges character calling himself “the Dude.” It was such a non-Dude thing to do. (Almost as irritating as the commodification of Dude by the so-called Dell Dude. I don’t blame the Dell Dude for taking the gig, but he was almost too good at it-to the extent that, for a little while, it began to feel a little tacky to use “dude.”)

But to return to Lebowski : The real Dude in the picture is Lebowski’s buddy, Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman) who’s the best thing in the movie-along with the two of them using the word “roll” for bowl (transport again). Indeed, the whole bowling/ spiritual aspect of the film is highlighted by Sobchak’s refusal to “roll on shabbos .”

8) DEMIGODS OF DUDE, PART FOUR: ASHTON KUTCHER

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but the title Dude, Where’s My Car? can be traced to a line in The Big Lebowski , when Sobchak asks Lebowski: “Where’s your car, Dude?” And even though most of Dude, Where’s My Car? makes even Bill and Ted seem like a subdued, autumnal work of the subtle Japanese master of cinema, Yasujiro Ozu, Dude has become a cult film, and the title of the movie alone is worth the price of admission. And coming in the year 2000, it clearly signaled that Dude would span the turn of the century. The totally awesome title of the sequel alone- Seriously, Dude, Where’s My Car? (planned for release in 2004)-should insure that Dude lasts well into the new millennium.

But, of course, there’s more to Dude, Where’s My Car? than the title and the theme of lost transport . (Well, a little more.) There’s that great, now sort-of-famous exchange between Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott when they read the tattoos on each other’s backs. It’s not quite “Who’s on first?”, but it’s not a bad update.

See, they’ve just discovered that they’ve gotten tattoos on their backs, which they have no memory of getting. Because the tattoos are on their backs, they each have to read the others’ ink. And they discover that Kutcher’s tattoo reads “Dude,” and Scott’s reads “Sweet.”

And since “Sweet” has come to be a synonym for the awestruck “Duuuude,” trouble ensues:

“Dude, what does my tattoo say?” asks Scott.

“‘Sweet,'” says Kutcher. “What about mine?”

“‘Dude,'” says Scott. “What does mine say?”

“‘Sweet,'” says Kutcher. “What about mine?”

“‘Dude’!” says an increasingly annoyed Scott. “What about mine?”

“‘Sweet’!”

And so it goes, until they’re at each other’s throats.

It probably doesn’t make any sense to those who haven’t seen it, but you sort of give in to it when you do. (Our “big-cheese editor,” as the Eight-Day Week likes to call him, boasts that he has it memorized). If this seems slightly less serious than the intellectual fare my readers are used to, let me offer …

9) THE DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR? LITERARY GAME

This was something I devised during a dinner with my friends Virginia and David, although they came up with the best answer. The idea is to see how many great works of literature you can fit into the Dude, Where’s My Car? framework.

For instance, Moby-Dick – Dude, Where’s My Whale?

The Iliad – Dude, Where’s My Trojans?

The Catcher in the Rye – Dude, Where’s My Innocence?

A Tale of Two Cities – Dude, Where’s My Head?

The Red and the Black – Dude, Where’s My Color Sense?

The best was one that David and Virginia seemed to come up with simultaneously:

The Sun Also Rises – Dude, Where’s My Dick?

I’ll conclude this installment of “Notes on ‘Dude'” with some dude etiquette:

10) SOME DUDE DO’S AND DON’T’S

-Never use “dude” more than twice in a single sentence.

-Headline plays on Dude, Where’s My Car? have pretty much reached their limit. I recently saw a headline: “Dude, Where’s My Terrorism?”

-So have plays on “Dude, You’re Gettin’ a Dell.”

-Enough with the commercialization: A sample Web search revealed, among many others, the Weather Dude, the Pizza Dude, the Balloon Dude and the Cookie Dude. There was also “Dude Dressing: Major Zesty Garlic Peppercorn Ranch Salad Dressing that makes you say whoa dude!!!'” I even saw a Web site for “The Creator Dude.” It wasn’t God.