Think back on this: 2007 was a big year for the bro. The famous phrase “Don’t tase me, bro!” catapulted into meme-status, and The Onion published a pristine piece called “Bro, You’re A God Among Bros” which parodied the tendency of bros (or brahs, if you prefer) to create portmanbros like Bromo sapien and brofessional. Over the last half a decade, we’ve seen the rise of bromance (a close friendship between bros), brogrammer (a bro computer programmer) and Bronies (bros that are into My Little Ponies), proving bro is an innovative and useful new addition to the English language. While these novel usages find their roots in ’90s surfer culture, they now are ubiquitous among those who have never come in contact with a surfboard.
Whether or not you are a bro might be determined by how you use the word. While bro may carry pejorative connotations, among bros it is often used as a term of endearment as in “Hey, bro. How you doing, bro?” On the Oxford Dictionaries blog, Katherine Connor Martin brings up this metonymic quality of brodom: “by being the sort of person who says ‘bro,’ a person becomes a bro. In the immortal utterance ‘don’t tase me, bro’ it is not the person doing the tasing who is the bro, but the person being tased.” Bros also recognize that the term can be loaded. In a recent interview on Slate, BroBible managing editor J. Camm admits: “There’s still a negative stigma attached to the word bro, [...] But we’re slowly changing that connotation.”
Where did bro come from? It first entered English in the 17th century as an often-written abbreviation for “brother.” By the early 1900s, it could refer to a “guy or fellow” or a “male friend or buddy.” This usage originally surfaced in African American slang to refer to a fellow black male.
Gene Demby, over at NPR’s Code Switch blog, breaks brodom down into four qualities: stonerishness, dudeliness, preppiness, and jockishness (though a bro need not possess all these qualities). Demby asks whether the current definition of bro requires a discussion of race. His informal poll concluded that broness is generally associated with white, privileged men, however, there are exceptions. One Twitterer responded that “It’s about wealth/privilege & often sexist attitude. Not implicitly about race.” For some, maleness is not a prerequisite for brodom either; there are lady-bros (sometimes called Beckys).
While not all bros are white or even male, these presumed descriptions accompany most discussions of bro culture. In September 2013, Ann Friedman suggested that the term bro and its offshoots have taken off so spectacularly in the last few years thanks to the fact that it allows for talk of this particular type of person without launching into a political discussion: “‘Bro’ is convenient because describing a professional or social dynamic as ‘overly white, straight, and male’ seems both too politically charged and too general; instead, ‘bro’ conjures a particular type of dude who operates socially by excluding those who are different.”
In our most recent update, Dictionary.com added a new sense of bro that captured this common usage. We also added a few of the most ubiquitous portmanbros.
(What other words did we add to the dictionary? Here’s a round-up of our favorites.)
What’s the most interesting portmanbro you’ve seen or heard? Does anyone you know call people “bro”? Do you?