Matthew J.X. Maladay is a journalist who writes excellent language pieces for Slate magazine. (My favorite is the one on Pennsylvania, of course!) He recently contacted me about the term bro. Bro is having its moment apparently, and people have increasingly asked me about it over the years in reference to dude. Matthew's post is here.

Here's a transcript of our email exchange, which is a little more detailed. Reading over it I thought it sounded kind of like a blog post itself.

I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about the history and origins of the word, or shortened word, “bro” generally. From what I can gather, the use of the word to mean anything other than “brother” is a fairly recent phenomenon—within the past 100 year or so. But I'm curious about the path it has taken, and if you think there's anything uniquely interesting about it.

Like dude and man, bro has probably been around for a long time but only recently seen with it's current meanings. In fact, a quick look at Google Ngram and a similar tool for metafilter, shows that its rise is very recent. (There's some noise in the Google Ngram because "bro" is often used, especially apparently in the very beginning and the middle of the last century, as an actual abbreviation for brother. I suspect that "Bro." is used a lot midcentury because these are publications listing fraternal organizations and unions which grew in number at this time. In any case, those abbreviations account for most of the uses before 1965 at least. It may be that there is a relationship between these abbreviations and the later use as an address term. I haven't had time to do an extensive analysis.)

One might wonder whether all of these different forms are functioning in the same way but cycle through which ones are 'cool.' To some extent, this is true and happens all the time, especially with terms that relate to emotion an evaluation (intensifiers like really and so, positive assessment adjectives like cool, awesome, and incredible). But each one is a little different and captures something of the time-bound culture it is a part of. Dude had a lot to do with a laid back counter-culture, while bro seems to be more associated with conformity, although in the current culture irony is always lurking in every utterance. In addition, other cultures seem to develop similar terms (guey in Mexican and Southwest American Spanish, alter in German), but they all have slightly different ways they are used and layers of inflection. If you look at the Google Ngram, notice that, while bro is increasing, dude is not decreasing along with it. This pattern suggests that bro is not replacing dude (although since these data are based on books we can't rely on the data completely).

Bro is different because it seems to be more versatile and productive than other terms, for a number of reasons. Words like dude, man, buddy, pal, and bro can all be used in two ways: as a referring term and as an address term. A referring term is when it is used as a regular noun, and will generally follow a determiner in a noun phrase, for example "the man," "this dude," "my buddy", etc. An address term is used, at least functionally, to identify the addressee of an utterance. You is the most common generic one we have in English, but we also use first names, names with titles, etc. By choosing one address term over the other, you send social signals about our relationship to the person we're talking to. So with that background, 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. That is, a bro is a particular type of person, as noted by your question below. Dude and the other terms never really picked out a specific type of man that bro does. Dudes are just dudes, men are just men, and even buddies are just simply close friends. They do have slightly different connotations, but not to the specificity that bro does.

Bro actually seems to have two related senses. In the specific ("you are my bro"), it means simply a male friend, but in a more generic use ("bros before hos", "a bro cares about sports" both from The Bro Code it is a particularly close friend who is extremely loyal and heterosexual). The latter use points to the wider identity category of bro, which denotes membership in a particular subculture in terms of dress, leisure activity, sexual relationships, etc. which we get into below.

In addition, linguistically bro is more productive, meaning that because of it's phonological shape -- mainly I think ending in a vowel -- it can be combined with other words quite easily so that that these words can take on a male or even 'bro culture' flavor. The most common of these and the first I ever encountered was bromance, but they are endless (hence the term 'productive'), such as broccasion. There are other ways it is used as wordplay, as in "Bro my God" (this site is a good example of the celebration of 'bro culture' as discussed below).

Why did the rise of bro start when it did? This question is always the most interesting and the most elusive. But, my guess is that the whole idea of 'bro culture' is a kind of backlash to a celebration of a non-traditional, non-judgmental, non-exclusive masculinity that younger men have been told is the new ideal (just as the young men using dude were resisting to the corporate ideals -- like hard work -- of masculinity in the 80s). For example, the culture morally says to them "don't objectify women" but then much of the culture they see says "look, here, objectify women, and this is how it's done." In addition, there is Barney Stinson, the character on the extremely popular How I Met Your Mother, who would produce sayings from "The Bro Code" that are principles of the bro culture. While this show alone is probably not responsible for the rise of the term, I'm sure it gave it an important boost. The book based on the Code has spawned other books ("The Bro Code for Parents") and has almost 4.5 million likes on Facebook. In this way I think bro is similar to dude which got a boost from popular culture by Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Fast Times at Ridgemont High in the 80s, and from The Big Lebowski in the 90s.

This current usage that we hear so commonly in popular culture to describe sort of frat boy buds who kind of hang out and call each other bro and wear docksiders or whatever, is there any sense of where that came from or what started all that? Was it gradual or sudden? And is it safe to assume that only men can be “bros.”

I think I answered that a lot in the previous question. Bro, based on the inherently male full-form brother, refers to a male person. The Bro Code (I'm not sure about the wisdom of referring to that as an authority) says women can be a bro, but my guess is that this references that a women can take on traits of a close male friend and be a bro that way. It wouldn't exactly make the female bro (brolina? broanna?) to be masculine, but she becomes 'one of the boys' and ostensibly at least out of the heterosexual market for her 'bros.' I would also imagine that she can be addressed as bro in order to indicate that the statement that accompanies the term is not meant in a sexual or intimate way.

To some extent it seems like the word as it’s currently being used could be seen as either a positive or a negative, depending on the context and who you ask. But it does seem like recently there’s been a shift toward the negative with connotations relating to privilege, and self-centeredness, and exclusion. I'd like to read you something from Ann Friedman in New York Magazine:

“Bro” once meant something specific: a self-absorbed young white guy in board shorts with a taste for cheap beer. But it’s become a shorthand for the sort of privileged ignorance that thrives in groups dominated by wealthy, white, straight men. “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. And, crucially, a bro in isolation is barely a bro at all — he needs his peers to reinforce his beliefs and laugh at his jokes.

What do you make of that assessment?

I think it's right. My student Sonny Kieu wrote a paper in 2013 on the phemomenon. He notes that

"bros have a reputation of being 'douchebags,' and unfortunately it has become the stereotype that people have fallen back on. Upon hearing the word bro, either by self-acknowledgement or by address, people outside of the Bro Culture tend to remove themselves away from that connection. This creates a divide between the use of bro and dude. “…Many ways the stances indexed by dude were (and still are) nonconformist and attractive to adolescents”(2004 Kiesling). The use of bro does the opposite. Bro indexes a solidarity that is created by conforming to a specific style of dress, speech, and lifestyle."

So Kieu's work, based on a survey and his own knowledge of Bro Culture at the University of Pittsburgh, confirms Friedman's assessment.

I find it kind of interesting how “bro” has sort of of entered this odd circle of “friend synonyms” that people in some cases use in very aggressive ways—man, buddy, dude, pal, etc. “What’s your problem, buddy?” “You're going to pay you, bro.” etc. What is going on in these situations and could you talk about those usages from a language development perspective?

I think it's used for two reasons in these situations. I talked about one in my Dude article in 2004, which is to ameliorate the force of the conflict. In other words, it actually tones down aggressiveness to make it so that the conflict is limited to words and not physical conflict (sticks and stones...). However, there's another possibility which goes far back in time in many languages. In this case, using familiar terms when none really exists presumes a power on the part of the person who uses it. For example, in French, an asymmetric use of tu (roughly, familiar 'you') and vous (respectful or polite 'you') indicates that the person being called tu is in the less powerful position. Moreover, it is usually the more powerful person who gets to choose when to use symmetrical familiar forms (when both people call each other tu -- or dude). So, using a familiar address form like this in English (which only has one word for 'you,' unless one counts y'all, yinz, youse, etc.) could be seen as a parallel to this power move. (Previous stages of English did have different forms; you can see them used in a similar way in Act3, scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet in which Tybalt kills Mercutio -- "a plague on both your houses!" Thou/thee is used both for familiar and insulting meanings.) So, to get back to bro, dude, etc., using these 'friendly' forms when the person is obviously not your friend could actually increase the power move.

Is there anything new or unique or different about what’s going on with “bro” in popular culture and everyday conversation, or is it basically par for the course in terms of how language develops? In other words: Is this whole usage shift development interesting linguistically speaking?

I think I kind of answered this one above also, in noting how much more varied and productive the use of bro is. In addition there is more linguistic self-consciousness of its use. 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. 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.

Do you think “bro” is here to stay? Might there be some backlash against its overuse? Or may it be rejected over time generally because it becomes more and more offensive? Also, might it be a word keyed to a certain time in the way “yuppie” was sort of an 80s thing and has largely disappeared?

The usual pattern is for these terms to get used more and more until they are used by all and are unremarkable. Dude is no longer a male-only word except in certain places and generations (my daughter says dude to her mother sometimes). I'm not sure that will happen given the strong association with Bro Culture, but I imagine I might have thought the same in 80s about dude.