Guys, Dudes, and Brodies

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August 26, 2018 by libroshombre


A decade ago the New York Post ran an article by Jasmine Williams titled “Steve Brodie – Daredevil or Hoaxster?” Williams could have asked if Brodie was a “dude,” just a “guy,” or even a “guy-a-whack.” A local friend recently told me how his young smokejumper pals in the 70s often went on sprees. He recalled a memorable evening when a smokejumper pal “cut some brodies” – i.e. drove his 4-wheel truck in fast, tight circles while spinning the wheels – on the base commander’s lawn before being apprehended and chastised.

There’s a difference, and some similarities, between mechanized vandalism and Brodie’s original namesake term. In 1886 Steve Brodie was a 23-year-old professional race walker, a gambler and broke. To win a Bowery saloon, Brodie said he’d jump into the East River from the recently completed Brooklyn Bridge, a 14-story fall. He won his saloon after being fished out of the river, but no one actually saw him make the leap. Nonetheless, “Brodie became an instant celebrity,” Williams wrote, “and milked his 15 minutes of fame for a lifetime,” which was brief.

Brodie opened his bar as a tourist attraction, inlaying the floor with silver dollars, and played himself in vaudeville musicals. George Raft portrayed Brodie in the1933 film, “The Bowery,” and he appeared with Bugs Bunny in the 1949 “Bowery Bugs” cartoon. In real life Brodie soon lost his bar and another one in Buffalo, and died in San Antonio in 1901 from diabetes at age 38.

One of the most reputable sources on the subject, “Green’s Dictionary of Slang” says the phrase “do a Brodie” means “to attempt a dangerous, foolhardy stunt,” and also “to have a metaphorical fit,” commit suicide, and “for aboxer to lose a fight deliberately.” And a simple “brodie” can mean “take a chance,” “blunder or fail,” and, like Fairbanks smoke jumpers of old, “to spin, to skid.”

Green’s is the usual choice for general English language slang, but “A Dictionary of Americanisms On Historical Principles” edited by Mitford Mathews for the University of Chicago Press, corrected other dictionaries’ misattributions, including the OED. Mitford’s team compiled the 2,000-page collection of 50,000 specifically American words and expressions in six years, publishing it in 1951. The entries included “outright coinages” (appendicitis, hydrant”), words “which first became English in the U.S.” (adobe, campus, gorilla), and words “used in senses first given them in American usage” (faculty, fraternity, refrigerator).

A “guy” in Green’s first set of definitions can be a “fool,” based on the effigies of Guy Fawkes, “a “dark lantern,” “an ugly or badly dressed person,” a“crimp” (“one who tricks men into joining the navy”), a smart aleck, a trick or hoax, or “an act of running off.” In the second set a guy can be a “man or boy,” “boyfriend or lover,” a “walk or expedition,” or “a euphemism for ‘God’.” And “guy-a-whacks” are defaulting Australian bookmakers.

Mathews eschewed non-American expressions, but noted that here “guy” once meant “to trifle with, to distort, to make absurd,” and “to joke or tease unmercifully.” He also pointed out that in the mid-1800s a “guyascutus” was “an imagainary animal of an extremely ferocious and terrifying kind” and also “a homemade device for producing noise.” The NYPost said “Hundreds of Americanisms, Dr. Mathews found, grew out of other languages. English-speaking settlers in the Spanish Southwest converted calabozo into calaboose, estampida into stampede and vamos into vamoose. German gunsmiths in Pennsylvania named the rifle, probably derived from riffel, meaning groove. From the Dutch word, pappekak for dung, emerged poppycock. “

But Mitford would certainly have been considered a “dude,” which the Online Etymology Dictionary traces to a popular 1883 New York City description of “a fastidious man.” Some researchers are postulating “dude” came from abbreviating “Yankee Doodle,” which described looking like “a macroni,” which defines as “an 18th-century British dandy affecting Continental fashions.” “Dude” first appeared in print in 1883, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “in reference to the devotees of the ‘aesthetic’ craze, later applied to city slickers,” and the first dude ranch appeared in 1921.

Mitford’s and Greene’s contributions to our lexicon are both at your public library, where dudes and dudines (“female dudes,” according to are always welcome.

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