As our recent dandy word-association poll revealed, when people hear the term they don’t exactly think of Brummellian concepts. No one said that the first thing that came to mind was restraint, aloofness, bold simplicity, quiet perfection, or even snuff boxes. No one said “John Steed.” Of course, the poll was conducted a fashion event at Bergdorf Goodman.
Since the end of the Regency the meaning of dandy has been in a constant state of flux. Look what Baudelaire did with the word, and that was 150 years ago.
More recently, Ian Kelley’s Brummell biography contains this passage about how the “modern ear” hears the word dandy:
Just as the meaning of “dandy” is skewed to the modern ear when taken in the context of Brummell’s Dandiacal Body — men of deliberately understated chic, not outré dress….
But if you think the term dandy has been distorted, look what’s happened to the word “dude.”
This week The Atlantic posted an essay by JJ Gould on the history of the word dude, pointing out that the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s first definition for dude is a dandy:
1: a man extremely fastidious in dress and manner: DANDY
2: a city dweller unfamiliar with life on the range; especially: an Easterner in the West
3: FELLOW, GUY—sometimes used informally as a term of address <hey, dude, what’s up>
Gould goes on to say:
The first two definitions are historically accurate, anyway. (As Richard Hill attests in his study “You’ve Come a Long Way, Dude,” by the latter half of the 19th century, the word was “synonymous with dandy, a term used to designate a sharp dresser in the [U.S.] western territories.”) But they’re also entirely archaic.
Perhaps the word dandy, too, will one day change its meaning entirely. In fact, it could reassert itself as a synonym for dude, and unkempt youths could begin greeting each other with, “What’s up, dandy?”