Zoinks! Trying to break some verbal habits

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I don’t remember when I first heard “duuuuuude!” As a word intended to communicate anything from, “Hello, friend!” to “I agree!” to “Don’t panic” to “I can’t believe you just said/did that! What were you thinking?” and a million things in-between. Before I looked up the linquistic history of the word, I had hazarded a guess that it was late in high school, which would put it roughly in the year 1978-79. And while that particular sense of the word seems to have arisen in several different American subcultures in the 50s and 60s, it didn’t really begin the move into pop culture until the early 80s, so it was more likely in college (which began as several years of attending community college part-time while working to save up for university, before three more years there) where I acquired the habit.

I know in the 90s I used the word with friends and acquaintances of both genders. One butch lesbian friend was very fond of using “Dude!” to mean, “You can’t be serious!” for instance. So even though I knew that the word originally meant (back in the 1800s) a foppish young man who dressed in overly-fashion-conscious clothes and affected a sophisticated manner, and then later had morphed to describe a man from the city visiting the western countryside who was unfamiliar with physical labor and the necessities of life on the range, I thought of it as a gender-neutral term.

But it’s not…


As the Atlantic explained in A Brief History of Dude (paraphrasing a linguist on the topic), “dude” implies a particular understanding of fellowship among men. Specifically, it is used mainly between young men to address each other in an emphatically heterosexual mode of casual camaraderie and affection. In other words, it is a way for one guy to signal to another, “I like you, but not that way” while simultaneously conveying the various complex messages I described at the beginning of this post through the tone and cadence of its delivery.

Even if there wasn’t such an authoritative pronouncement on the meaning of the word, when a trans woman of my acquaintance took offense at the word, and then a cis gal pal chimed in that they also found it off-putting, I decided I needed to stop saying “dude.” It’s bad enough to inadvertantly offend someone, but now that the offense has been drawn to my attention, I would be a complete a-hole if I didn’t try to do something about it.

I want to be perfectly clear here: no one is forcing me to change my speech habits. People made me aware that they felt excluded or disrespected for their gender when “dude” is used to refer to them. That’s all. No one is infringing on my right to free speech. I’ve become aware that the word is hurtful to some people I care about, and to a lot of people I’ve never met, and because I try not to be a jerk, I’m making the decision to stop using the word. There are people who don’t understand this distinction. If you think merely being told that something offends someone infringes on your rights, that means you’re a jerk.

I don’t want to be a jerk, so I’m trying to stop using the word that way. And try is definitely the word. I had no idea just how deeply the word was ingrained in my speech patterns. It’s my first go-to whenever someone I know and care about says something that I wish to disagree upon. Or at least banter about. I’ve slipped many times.

Worse, when I first started trying to eradicate the term, I found that what my internal editor tried to substitute was, “man.” So instead of addressing a non-male friend with something like, “Dude! How could you?” I started to say, “Man! How could you?” That’s very telling. Clearly this is a speech pattern and mode of thought has been culturally ingrained in me even deeper than I thought!

This is a little different than when I tried to stop using the phrase “you guys” to refer to a group of people. Since most of my relatives are from the south or the parts of the southwest where “y’all” is a common term, and thus I grew up hearing it all the time, I found it wasn’t very difficult to retrain myself to say things like, “What d’ y’all think” instead of “What do you guys think.” I already had a habit of saying “all a’ y’all” in certain circumstances, anyway. Throwing in a few more y’alls I could handle.

But this use of “dude” doesn’t have an easy, non-gendered substitute. I tried to make myself say, “Seriously?” in at least some of the circumstances, but I realized that comes across as demeaning or dismissive. Great, I’m not misgendering my friend or acquaintance, I’m just telling them their opinion is laughable!

Which means, by the way, if you have any suggestions of phrases or terms I could use instead of “dude!” send them my way!

And, of course, while I’m still struggling with this, I’ve had a completely different set of friends alert me to the fact that frequently when I use the term, “hon” it comes across as me saying that the person addressed is too young or inexperienced to understand something. And again, it doesn’t matter whether that is consciously what I mean by it, if that’s how it’s heard, well, I need to change what I’m saying or how I’m saying it.

I will draw at least a couple of hard lines, though. First, I’m queer. I’m going to keep calling myself queer, and using queer as a blanket term for all things LGBT/ LGBTI/ GLBTI/ LGBTQIA-related or otherwise non-heterosexual rather than try to list off all of those other initialisms. This is a conscious decision that I made back in the 90s, despite the fact that a lot of gay men my age and older at the time were very offended by the term. I’ve written about why here, but the sum-up is: I get to decide what to call myself and my community, and I choose to join those who are reclaiming a word that used to be used as a weapon against us.

I will keep using dude as a descriptor of a particular type of often misogynist sensibility, such as when I talk about why I love sword-and-sorcery stories, even though I wish they weren’t always reduced to dudes-with-swords. Or in an intentionally depracatory sense such as, “Safety lights are for dudes.”

Because, come on, Holtzman is right! Right?

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

3 responses to “Zoinks! Trying to break some verbal habits”

  1. Erica says :

    SO interesting…I’ve honestly never heard of someone being offended by the word “dude.” I’m probably older than you are and remember first hearing dude from the mouth of Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Everyone I’ve encountered in my generation thinks of it as something mainly Californian (I’m on the East Coast) and corny, but I’ve overheard young women/girls use it with each other as a term of friendly familiarity….really just as a friendly filler and not referencing gender. I’m not crazy about the word though, as it really does still remind me of a certain weed-induced spaciness. Nothing against weed, jus’ sayin’.

    • fontfolly says :

      I was 22 with Fast Times at Ridgemont High came out, and I suspect it may have been the first place I heard it, too.

      I know of lots of people who aren’t offended. But plenty are (many of them trans and genderfluid friends, who have to deal with being misgendered a lot). Besides avoiding hurting some people, I also think it can’t be hurting me to be more mindful of what I’m saying. 🙂

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