Exploring the Etymology of ‘Bro’

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Today, Oxford weighed in on one of the more slippery colloquialisms in modern-day English: bro. In an exhaustive blog post sprinkled with links to Urban Dictionary, as well as to definitions of some of the more challenging terms (“portmaneteau” vs. “portmanbro”), the Oxford Dictionaries' OxfordWords blog traced the evolution of the term all the way from its original incarnation as an abbreviation for brother.

Of course, they’re hardly the first to observe that the way the term is used has changed. “‘Bro’ once meant something specific: a self-absorbed young white guy in board shorts with a taste for cheap beer,” Cut columnist Ann Friedman wrote last month, observing that now the term is more “a shorthand for the sort of privileged ignorance that thrives in groups dominated by wealthy, white, straight men.”   

Yet it turns out that before the bro was white, he was black. As The Atlantic’s Alexander Abad Santos points out, bro — much like the term hipster, incidentally — used to refer “simply to a man (a synonym of fellow or guy), or sometimes more specifically a black man.” Now even NPR agrees that bros are usually white, but aside from race, it can be difficult to settle on what constitutes a bro.

In this regard, it seems that the bro may have gone the way of the hipster: a descriptor co-opted by the masses that no longer means much of anything. Even Oxford Dictionaries is hesitant to make any specific assertions about what a bro is: “The essence of bro-dom is in the eye of the beholder," they write. "Precisely what defines the subculture of bros depends on one’s position in time and place, ranging from flannel-shirted frat boys, to laconic surfers, to twenty-something investment bankers.”

Yet they offer one definitive attribute: a bro, they claim, while shifting and elusive, can be recognized by the tendency to also use the word bro. They elaborate:

This suggests a certain element of metonymy: 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.

So what, we’re all bros now? Thanks for nothing, Oxford.

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