The Ubiquity of Bro Tells Us That the Word May Not Be Popular for Long

Language and how we use it.
Aug. 13 2014 11:43 AM

The End of Bro

The term’s ubiquity may signal its demise.

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Bro in the news.

Image by Slate

A few weeks ago, the country music duo Maddie & Tae released their debut single “Girl in a Country Song” to impressive airplay numbers and broad media coverage. Why all the attention? The song is catchy, but it also appealed to people as the latest in a series of highly public junk punches that have been pounding away at bro culture as we’ve come to know it. “Girl in a Country Song” takes aim at a musical genre known as Bro Country, a term coined by former Slate music critic Jody Rosen. In the video, which has been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube, three bros are made to parade around in cutoff jeans and too-tight tank tops before eating strawberries in slo-mo.   

As nearly everyone has noticed, since at least the early aughts, men—especially straight, white men between the ages of 15 and 35 who happen to wear their baseball caps backward and enjoy the occasional brewski or bro-hug with other similarly situated men—have been referring to one another as bro with increasing regularity. As a result, we’ve all suffered through far too many bro-related SNL sketches and that ridiculous Bros Icing Bros thing, our ears accosted by annoying portmanbros like “bromance” and “Broseph Stalin.” “U Mad Bro?” became an Internet and T-shirt sensation. “Don’t tase me, bro!” went viral within hours of being uttered. And bro on, and bro on.

During the past 12 months there has been a marked uptick in news stories and magazine articles portraying the bro lifestyle as one based on privilege, self-centeredness, and sexism. (Among the more prominent examples: a widely read New York Times piece that examined “a sexist, alpha-male culture” in the tech industry.) But when it comes to how we talk to one another, a similar level of backlash isn’t immediately evident. The proliferation of “Don’t Bro Me If You Don’t Know Me!” T-shirts may seem to signal the early stages of a rebellion against the bro-ification of our language—but they also appear to claim a truer, more intimate meaning of the term that should not be sullied. (Once we do know the T-shirt wearer, we can, it seems, bro them at will.) And spend 10 minutes at almost any sporting event, concert, gym, or mall, and you’ll quickly realize that bro’s place in casual conversation remains rock solid.

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Still, amid this very ubiquity, there are signs that suggest the word may not last. To understand why, it helps to know where the word comes from, and why it’s taken off over the past decade or so.

University of Pittsburgh linguistics professor Scott Kiesling argues that bro has thrived during the recent past at least partly because it offers up a few things that other seemingly similar words like dude, man, and buddy do not. “One difference that bro presents is that it is used much more than the others as a referring term to refer to a particular type of person,” he says. Kiesling notes that dude was at one point associated with a laidback, counterculture vibe, but even then it wasn’t limited to such a precise subset of men. “Dude and the other terms never really picked out a specific type of man [the way] bro does. Dudes are just dudes, men are just men, and even buddies are simply close friends. They do have slightly different connotations, but not to the specificity that bro does.”

In that way, Kiesling adds, bro has become more productive than words such as man or buddy. And when most people use it, they are doing so with specific intent. “In general, I suspect that anyone using bro knows what they are doing and why, and, moreover, taking a stance toward the terms and the culture,” he says. “They may be borrowing some aspect of ‘bro culture’ momentarily, embracing it, criticizing it, etc. But there is no ‘dude culture’ or ‘buddy culture’ to align with or against, so that’s very different.”

Even with this relatively specific set of connotations, though, the word has gradually become more widely applicable. The bro label is no longer being used solely in reference to fratty white men. It has expanded beyond the hetero universe. And, as Ann Friedman noted on the Cut last September—by paraphrasing Jay Z—the term is not even always reserved for men. In some instances, “ladies is bros, too.” (Just in case there are any doubters, Amanda Hess has developed a running list of ladybros.)

So bro is, at least for the moment, a fairly handy word with quite a bit of range. That may not seem like great news for those hoping that it goes the way of yuppie. Are we stuck with bro forever?

This is where a longer view of the word’s history is worth examining. Though usage of bro as an abbreviation of  “brother” can be traced back to at least 1660, conversational uses more similar to what we hear today begin cropping up in the mid- to late 18th century, according to lexicographer and Indiana University English professor Michael Adams. He points to the text of a 1762 burlesque play titled Homer Travestie, which includes the word bro several times. “That suggests maybe it’s low or underworld speech—a type of slang of the period,” Adams says. “Brother would often be shortened to bro in this period, in the same way that many names were radically shortened, so that William would be shortened to Wm. You just skip all the letters you didn’t really need to identify the person. So in casual correspondence, that was the way people referred to each other, and it may have migrated into speech.”