Just the other day we found ourselves discussing this question in the office.
We began to joint-compile an oral dissertation on ancient etymology until eventually someone googled the answer. Then today I stumbled upon linguistic professor Allan Metcalf who, in addition to writing a book analyzing the history of the word “OK,” writes explanatory articles for The Chronicle of Higher Education which provide academic insight on commonly used slang.
Take the word “dude” for example. It was one of the most commonplace words in 1883, (about 100 years prior to The Big Lebowski) and was described as: “The Dood is oftenest seen in the lobbies of our theatres on first-nights. He puffs cigarettes or sucks his hammered-silver tipped cane in the entr actes, and passes remarks of a not particularly intellectual character on the appearance and dresses of the actresses.” It seems that the strong characteristics of The Dude have transcended about 130 years.
Another word he sheds light on is “like,” which since the 1980s has spread far beyond the confines of California’s San Fernando Valley. I’m guilty in my overly-frequent use of this 4-letter word to qualify my thoughts, but why does it roll off the tongue oh so easily? Metcalf explains, “This use of ‘like’ allows us to introduce not just what we said or thought, but how. Instead of merely saying words, ‘like’ with ‘be’ allows us to enact the scene.”
As a particularly speedy chatterbox, words occasionally pour out of my mouth faster than my brain has time to process them, leaving me very little time to question their root or history. So thank you, Mr. Metcalf, for breaking it down.