Word Histories

Etymologies derived from the files of the Dictionary of American Regional English


Like Bart Simpson and the adventurous cinematic duo Bill and Ted, whose frequent use of dude (fellow, guy) helped give the word its current popularity, dude is thoroughly American. It first appeared in print in the early 1880s, to describe a man fastidious in his dress and manner (“Every day

his face and hands were washed three times and his yellow hair was combed. Now this . . . was dudish in the hardy miner’s eyes”—CourierJournal, 1887). The most widely accepted theory is that dude appeared as an indirect result of the Aesthetic Movement in Great Britain. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was the high priest of this movement, whose adherents emulated his eccentric dress and affected speech and manner. In 1882, on a lecture tour in the United States, Wilde gave Americans a firsthand view of an aesthete; it seems likely that dude was coined from a combination of “dud” (an article of clothing) and “attitude,” reflecting the self-conscious manner of Wilde and his imitators (“The social ’dude’ who affects English dress and the English drawl”—The American, 1883). In the western United States the meaning was extended to refer disdainfully to an easterner or a citybred person (hence the term dude ranch for a resort or ranch catering to vacationing dudes). Dude didn’t lose these derogatory connotations until the 1960s, when it gained currency among urban blacks.


Among the defendants in the recent spate of lawsuits filed against cigarette manufacturers by smokers with cancer is Lorillard, the manufacturer of Kent cigarettes. During the early 1950s the brand contained a filter laced with asbestos (a known carcinogen), which was touted in advertisements of the time as being endorsed by the American Medical Association. The medical group was quick to respond to the advertisements, calling them “a most reprehensible instance of hucksterism.”Hucksterism (advertising, often at its manipulative worst) has come a long way from the medieval hukster (peddler) bent beneath a heavy bundle of wares. The image of a bent figure inspired the word, from the prehistoric Indo-European root *keu- (to bend) and its Germanic derivative *huk-. This root gave English hawker (peddler) and hawk (to peddle) through the Middle Low German hoken (to bend, squat, bear on the back), along with hunker, through the Old Norse hokra (to crouch), and huckster, from Middle Dutch hokester (one who squats, a peddler).

From huckster as a retailer of petty goods (“Wee buy our molten tallowe . . . of the hucksters and tripe-wives” — Henry Best, Farming and Account Books, 1641) came the more common meaning, a person who acts out of petty or mercenary motives (“I am no huckster, to sell my daughter to the best bidder”— Mary E. Braddon, Charlottes Inheritance, 1868).


The budget stalemate and the escalating tension in the Persian Gulf in the fall of 1990 gave political pundits pause as they tried to gauge voter discontent and anxiety “out on the hustings,” as one editorial put it. Hustings (electioneering, political campaigning; places where these things are done) is from the Old English hasting, which came from the Old Norse husthing, a compound of hus (house) and thing (assembly, council, court). Although this sense of thing died out in English, it survives in the Scandinavian languages Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish as ting. In Iceland the parliament is still called the Althing. Because the original Germanic word is cognate with the Gothic theihs (a time scheduled for something), etymologists reason that it meant “the time or day of assembly and is ultimately from the Indo-European root *tenk- (to stretch), whose meaning was extended to cover “a stretch of time.” In husthing, or “house assembly, the house being referred to was a king’s or nobleman’s, and the assembly was attended only by members of his immediate court. The second syllable was weakly accented, encouraging the pronunciation og th as t, and eventually establishinghusting. From the meaning “court council,“ hlisting became the name for the supreme court of London, made up of the Lord Mayor, the recorder, and aldermen. Used primarily in the plural form, it came to refer more specifically to the upper end of the hall, where the court convened, and then just to the platform on which the mayor and aidermen sat. BY the eighteenth century it referred to another platform, the one from which candidates for Parliament spoke and from which they were nominated. Finally it was extended to the stumping and electioneering process itself.