Recently, I was asked an interesting question by an individual who had never heard of a “dude ranch”. The question was, “is a “dude ranch” just for men, or can anyone come?”. I have to admit, I laughed a little when I first heard the question. After more thought, I am surprised that given the modern use of the word “dude”, I don’t get this question more often.
The urban dictionary defines “dude” as “A word that Americans use to address each other. Particularly stoners, surfers, and skaters.” Merriam Webster dictionary, when asked to define the term for kids, defines dude as a “man or guy”. In a November 2013 article, in The Atlantic titled, “A Brief History of Dude”, J.J. Gould describes this modern use of “dude” further:
“The contemporary use of dude developed in the Pacific Coast surfing culture of the early 1960s, it entered mainstream popular culture in the early ’80s, and it’s persisted, until recently, along the same basic lines.”
He goes on to say:
“ according to Scott F. Kiesling, the author of a seminal 2004 study from the journal American Speech—titled, yes, “Dude”—the term has long implied a particular understanding of fellowship among guys. Its dominant linguistic function, Kiesling argues, has been to enable men, mainly young men, to address one another in a conspicuously straight mode of laid-back camaraderie: “Dude allows men to create a stance … of closeness with other men (satisfying masculine solidarity) that also maintains a casual … distance.”
These modern uses of the word are most certainly where most of the confusion arises when someone hears the term “dude ranch” and is led to, quite naturally ask, if the ranch is just for dudes…guys…men.
To understand the reason we call our ranch vacation destinations “dude ranches”, the more classical context of the word needs to be understood. The first known use of the word arose in 1880 and its origin is unknown, although some sources say that it is of German origin. Still, other sources state that the word is of Irish origin and comes from the Gaelic word “duid” which means “foolish” or “stupid”. Apparently, the Irish ranch hands on the American west applied this term to the ranch guests who visited from the east coast. I can hardly be convinced that a whole industry would willingly take on a term to describe themselves which paints their clients as “foolish” or “stupid”. That doesn’t sound very good for business if you ask me!
Another, old use of the word “dude” comes in the form of a verb. Dictionary.com defines dude as a verb which means to “dress up elaborately.” For example, a sentence I can easily imagine my grandmother using: “The groom was all duded up in silver and black”. I am more inclined to believe the industry’s use of the word “dude” originating from this context.
When dude ranches became popular in the American West, it was only the very wealthy that could afford the long trip west and the high fees associated with experiencing the “real west” on a ranch. These ranch guests often bought elaborate outfits to fit the role of “cowboy”, in an effort to make their ranch experience more authentic. Who wouldn’t want to dress up like a cowboy? The big hat, boots, chaps, and handkerchiefs aren’t just functional, they're fun! Have you ever walked through a barn wearing a pair of chinks with long fringe on the bottom? Who needs dresses with ruffles when you can have leather fringe? That stuff has some serious twirl-able action to it! But I am getting off-topic…
The meaning and use of “dude” is as varied, it seems, as the people who use it. Dude ranches are not just for men. No, they are for anyone who wants to experience the spirit of the West. Anyone who saw that western movie and wished they could saddle up and ride into the sunset with John Wayne, Roy Rogers, or even Billy Crystal. To avoid confusion, which, I hope I have just cleared up somewhat, many ranches have chosen to identify themselves as a “guest ranch”. But whether you call it a guest ranch or a dude ranch makes no difference. The same goal, the same purpose lays at the foundation of every dude and guest ranch; to keep the principals, adventure, and spirit of the West alive and to help their guests discover it through an authentic, western, ranch experience.