Dude unbound

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Ray Dillinger sent a link to the latest Skin Horse strip, in which he observes that

The word "Dude" is used here as an interjection, followed by a (feminine) noun in direct address. The "person" directly addressed is a sentient hive of bees, who is (are? We lack grammatical categories for singular intelligences with plural bodies…) apparently getting divorce papers from a sentient cypress tree.

If this is not entirely clear to you, you may want to read the strip in context, and to recognize that Unity (the one with black-and-white hair) is addressing Gavotte (a swarm of bees who is also her boss). The other characters around the table are Sweetheart the dog, Moustachio the Thinkonium, and Dr. Dennis "Tip" Wilkin.

If you're still puzzled about the plot, you're on your own. But note that we documented "Dude, man" in the comic strips back in 2004; and I can also point you to Eric Bakovic's exegesis of another dude-heavy strip here.

[As for the grammar of sentient bees, I'm not sure that it raises any issues not already thoroughly muddled in the treatment of collective nouns — see here for discussion.]


  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Dude unbound [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

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  2. Julie said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    My roommate used to address me as "dude" all the time, and it bugged the heck out of me because I'm female. But in the last year or so I've started to notice myself using "dude" in the manner shown in the strip (as an interjection before a comment about the person I'm talking to), even with other women.

  3. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

    In Britain there's a similar divide between men who do and don't call women 'mate'. You can't really say, "Mate, man" though… or at least, I've never heard it. Google turns up 28,900 hits but a quick scan reveals none of the "Dude, man" variety.

    Men do say "man" to women, though, and to my ear it's less weird sounding than saying 'mate' to them.

  4. Bobbie said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 9:03 pm


  5. J. Goard said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    For me, in California, it was pretty natural to address a young woman as "man" or "dude". The exclusively male term is "bro".

    I hear that "son" is spreading out of the black community, but I can't imagine using it except in conscious imitation.

  6. Joyce Melton said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

    Also startling is to hear "dude" used as an interjection or 2nd person marker (not pronoun exactly) in a language that isn't English. I've heard it in Spanish, even more in Spanglish, in Japanese and in Chinese. Anyone studying this?

  7. Mark F. said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 12:06 am

    It was a surprise when it was first pointed out to me that "dude" was now sometimes being used as an interjection rather than a vocative, but then I realized that there's a similar pattern with "man" (oh, and "boy"):

    Dude, that was amazing!
    Man, that was amazing!
    Boy, that was amazing!

    (There might not be any specific person being addressed by the speaker in this case.)

    The parallel isn't perfect:

    Dad: No, you can't go to the game.
    Son: Aw, maan.
    *Aw, duuude.

    Anyway, are there other examples of vocatives being turned into interjections in this way? I take it this transformation comes from the fact that beginning a sentence with a vocative does tend to add emphasis.

    I had another question about dude-speak that this seems a good opportunity to ask — what's with the anarthrous use of the word that I see sometimes? Someone was writing to an advice columnist about whether she did the right thing in not letting a drunk guy she'd just met spend the night, and in her description of what happened, she daid "Dude slept in the car." How novel is this? Does anyone know where it comes from?

  8. dirk alan said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 12:12 am

    dude duderino the dudeness. new rug all is forgiven.

  9. Name said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 1:31 am

    It took me a second to figure out what this post was about because I use dude as an interjection regularly. I'm 32, originally from LA.

    As for "dude slept in the car", I also hear that a lot, although I don't say it. I have one friend who says things like that all the time; she's African American from New Orleans, if that helps anyone figure out where it comes from.

  10. Peter Taylor said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 1:39 am

    "Hombre" (lit. "man") is used as an interjection in Spain (at least) even by a woman addressing another woman. I'm not sure how frequent it is to follow it with a vocative – the Corpus del Español has no hits for hombre [np0].

  11. Joyce Melton said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 2:11 am

    At Mark F. Several. Girl, child, girlfriend, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ. Boss.

  12. Dierk said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 3:29 am

    Do I remember wrongly the use of 'Dude, man' been done first by Garry Trudeau in his Doonesberry in the late 1970s? I can't pin it down, though.

  13. John Ferguson said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 3:56 am

    I would proffer "Sentient hive of bees _which_ is" (or maybe 'that is'). The hive is singular and it's no different from a family or a crowd, or audience. "The family is going on holiday. The crowd is going wild. The audience is waiting". It annoys me no end to see singular nouns treated as plural, especially by the BBC.

  14. J Lee said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 4:28 am

    Hawaiian Creole English, the putative origin of the expression, uses bro/brah (universally /bra:/) not only as a vocative but commonly as an interjection or a sort of discourse marker (e.g., signifying the start of a narrative).

  15. Nick said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 4:33 am

    ‘Dude, Ma’am’ bears comparison with NE England, ‘man woman man’ (used when addressing a woman, naturally).
    (I can't see how to insert links, but Google ' 'Man woman man' geordie' for examples.)

  16. john riemann soong said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 5:26 am

    boy is totally out of fashion.

    I don't think me or my peers ever use "dude" in noun form. Dude is supposed to be "attention-getting", kind of like "yo".

  17. zoetrope said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 6:29 am

    @Mark F.
    Although I agree that "Aw, duuude" sounds odd in your example, I can imagine someone just saying "Duuude" in response to bad news, and it wouldn't matter whether they were speaking to a male or a female. Example:

    A: I won't be able to come to your party.
    B: Duuude.

  18. The Ridger said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 7:50 am

    "Guy slept in the car" (though I think "Guy slept in his car" unless it was mine, in which case 'the" definitely (which now seems somewhat odd)) sounds totally fine to me. So if you're a "dude" sayer instead of a 'guy" sayer, it would seem natural. It does need to be the first word in the sentence, though. "Give it to guy over there", for instance, wouldn't work.

  19. Jonny Rain said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 9:57 am

    The miraculous Ron Rosenbaum on the subject of dude:


  20. egaliede said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 10:40 am

    On the subject of "Guy/dude slept in the car": among a group of twenty-something "stoners" I am acquainted with in Ottawa and Montreal, the function of 'guy' in this phrase would be filled by 'buddy'. However, 'buddy' doesn't need to be used as the subject – "Give it to buddy over there" works just as well as "Buddy slept in the car".

    When I first encountered this usage, it was the source of a great deal of confusion for me – I wondered who this guy Buddy was whom they kept mentioning.

  21. ENKI-][ said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    I'm not sure you can really use the collective for a sentient hive of bees unless the individual bees are themselves sentient. You don't use the collective to refer to a person, despite people being masses of cells…

  22. Dan T. said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    Mensa doesn't publish annuals, as far as I know (as a long-time member); just (in the US and some other countries) a monthly national magazine, and sometimes monthly local/regional newsletters in areas.

  23. blahedo said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    "who is (are? We lack grammatical categories for singular intelligences with plural bodies…)…"

    As I recall, Vernor Vinge treats them as singular for purposes of number agreement and pronouns in A fire upon the deep. The only time there's a plural is if the bodies as bodies are referred to, but this isn't really any different from using the plural to refer to arms, eyes, etc.

  24. ella said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

    @John Ferguson – nouns such as 'audience' and 'team' taking the plural is standard British English. For the BBC to do otherwise would be incorrect.

  25. Freddy said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

    I always thought the female of "Dude" was "Doodah" (as in Camptown Races).

  26. Dan T. said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 11:12 pm

    Is the diminuitive "doody"?

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 1:08 am

    @J. Goard: Here in New Mexico, I'm pretty sure I've heard young women say bro to other young women, but I'm not sure I've heard a man say it to a woman.

    And what about bud? I thought all you surfer dudes called each other bud (and I thought all you Californians were surfer dudes). Hoping Ben Zimmer will come in with a discussion of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

    A while back I formed the theory that a male can't address the friendly dog to a female. Shortly after that, I heard a guy do so. Oh, well.

    Son is also British. In college in the '80s (in America) I often heard it and sometimes used it with some annoyance. "Look, son…"

    @egaliede: I thought Buddy in that sense was classic Newfie.

    Speaking of which, MYL wrote recently, "'Buddy' as a vocative is definitely a hostile way to address someone in the U.S., in most circumstances." Since then I've been paying attention, and I've heard a few uses of vocative "buddy", all without any hostility I could detect. This may be regional. For the Hispanic majority around here, ése is a good hostile vocative, though it can also be friendly.

    I'm almost used to older men calling their grandsons m'hijito and the like ("Sonny"), but I'm not used to fathers and sons calling each other bro.

    @Mark F.: I suspect the [adjective deleted] Aerosmith song "Dude Looked Like a Lady" may have helped popularize anarthrous dude. I suspect it's just article dropping, like Problem is,…. On the other hand, I used to play Ultimate with a guy who referred to unknown men as dudeman, which I sort of picked up.

    @Nick: You can add links with regular html: ⟨a href="…"⟩, etc. I hope. The previewer is showing my link above incorrectly, but sometimes when it does that the link works anyway.

  28. Nick said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 5:41 am

    Thanks. It was the (lack of) preview that confused me.

  29. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 6:22 am

    Dad: No, you can't go to the game.
    Son: Aw, maan.
    *Aw, duuude.

    Sounds perfectly grammatical to me, but then I'm a compulsive duder. I'm also a bisexual mater, as it were.

  30. blahedo said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    Anarthrous dude makes an appearance in Friday's Questionable Content: "Better than you can imagine" (last panel)

  31. Mary Kuhner said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

    Blahedo's "Anarthrous dude makes an appearance" really makes me visualize the dude in question–he's some kind of lame superhero, like Flaming Carrot.

    "Dude" is used quite often to form…what would you call them? Nonce names? Sometimes you need to quickly nickname a person of unknown name. My acquaintences tend to use "Guy" or "Dude", with "Dude" being a bit more perjorative. So if a male person were to keep fifty cats, they would be "Crazy Cat Dude" by analogy with "Crazy Cat Lady." But also, in a lengthy account of, say, a traffic accident, "the guy in the blue Corvette" could turn into "Corvette Guy" or, with a slightly more disparaging tone, "Corvette Dude."

    I don't know if I would ever call a female "Crazy Cat Dude." The rules about when dude and guy are neutral for me, and when they're marked as male, are totally unclear. ("Guys, you can't come in here, this is the guys' dressing room" said to a group of women strikes me as perfectly plausible, though someone listening carefully might laugh.)

  32. zakeralo said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 8:08 am

    What about 'dudette'? That's what a friend of mine calls me sometimes.

  33. speedwell said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    I remember a friend years ago telling me about a tabletop role-playing game he was in once, in which all of the characters were turned into sentient dogs. They could communicate only by barking and other dog vocalizations. The way this was played was that they were allowed to use only the word "dude" in its manifold intonations, along with physical gestures appropriate to dog bodies. it worked surprisingly well.

  34. maidhc said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 4:38 am

    In Hiberno-English, there's "yer man". A translation of "do dhuine", which is genderless. I've also heard "yer woman", but not so much. Interesting research topic if "yer man" can be applied to women.

    A funny story from someone I know who married an Irishwoman. After a few days with the in-laws, he demanded "Who is this man everyone is always talking about?".

    Calling women "man" was around in the days of the beatniks.

    Speedwell: I remember hearing an interview with a father who wiretapped his teenage son because he thought he was getting into drugs. But all the conversations consisted mostly of "dude" in different intonations.

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