Lexicon Valley

From Promenade to#Prahm: an Evolution of the Night to Remember

2014 may be the year in which we, as a society, have reached peak prom. Whether you’re an active participant in, or just a casual observer of the prom-industrial complex, it’s almost impossible not to notice how rapidly and deeply “prom culture” infiltrated national conversation in the U.S. this year.

While results from an early 2014 national spending survey (cum credit card promotion) have found that the average American household are expected to spend 14 percent less on prom-related activity than last year, there doesn’t seem to be any less time and effort spent on preparation for the “big night.” From the newsworthiness of “promposals,” those elaborate, proposal-style grand gestures that are equal parts moxie, ingenuity, and silliness, to the ever-complicated quests for the perfect outfit, whether it’s rented or hand-crafted, the social capital of the prom is as strong as ever.

How did we get here?

Defined as “a formal dance, especially one held by a class in high school or college at the end of the year,” and classified as chiefly North American, prom’s origins and evolution have crossed the Atlantic many times on both linguistic and cultural grounds.

The word prom is a shortening of promenade, a term of French origin that was used as early as the 16th century to mean a leisurely walk, as well as (in later years) the public space in which this kind of walk can take place. By the early 19th century, promenade had begun to be used as a shortening of its own, standing in for compounds like promenade deck, of the kind aboard passenger ships, and promenade concert, a concert space without seating. The latter compound is often shortened to prom once again, especially in reference to the most famous of promenade concerts, The Proms, which are held annually at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Promenade’s relation to dancing is well-documented. In both country dancing and ballet, the word makes an appearance, though with different applications. In ballet, a promenade is a slow turn made on one leg; in country dance, it’s a movement resembling a march made by couples in formation. By the 20th century, promenade position, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is “an open position for promenading in which the partners face in the same direction,” had become an essential part of ballroom dancing, as well.

1903 Mansfield (Ohio) News 22 Sept. 6/2 Taking a promenade position, the couple varsovienne—three steps and point—forward.

1994 Ballroom Dancing Times Feb. 173/1 The variation could be danced from any figures ended in Promenade Position ready to move along the Line of Dance.  

The concept and use of prom as a formal dancing event—and much closer to what we consider it to be today—began to take distinction in the mid-to-late 19th century. Other balls and dances that people attended during this time were suited with similarly curious names, though perhaps less circular histories. These included the jigging-party, which the writer Thomas Hardy mentions in his 1872 novel Under the Greenwood Tree, is a dancing party coming from the verb ‘to jig’; polkery, described in the OED as a social gathering held for the purpose of dancing the polka; and the Cinderella dance, which is an early-evening dance party, requiring guests to leave at midnight.

1872 T. Hardy Under Greenwood Tree. I. I. vii. 92 [On Christmas-day night] a jigging party looks suspicious.

Proms may be traced to the Ivy League and the annual tradition of a “presentation week,” during which formal dress and dancing accompanied a promenade concert. OED cites an 1879 publication of the Harvard (University) Crimson, in which the thriftiness of their Yale counterparts, even for the Junior class prom, is criticized.

1879 Yale Courant in Harvard Crimson (Electronic ed.) 5 Dec., Full many a dollar have they,..Which neither the Ball Club nor the Boat Club nor the Junior Prom. Com..nor the Lit. nor the News..can from their pockets tear.

What’s changed?

The last 100 or so years have seen the language of prom evolve from the cotillion-style social event to a hashtag-friendly meme. A Google Books exploration of prom-related word frequencies in English texts over time shows the drastic shift in priorities among prom-goers and organizers.

While junior and committee dominated as common collocates for prom in the first half of the 20th century, there is a distinct shift in interests in the latter half onward. The decline in usage of prom terminology in the 1960s and early 1970s may speak to more pressing political and social happenings in society; the Vietnam War and counterculture movement, for example, had a significant hold on the attention of young adults during that time. Since the ‘80s, prom night has risen steadily in relative frequency, showing that the occasion had transformed from just a dance to a full-evening event—now attended mainly by high school seniors vying for prom king or queen, fretting about their dates and dresses, and looking forward to after prom (an occasion for debauchery or innocent merry-making, depending on whom you ask).

New kinds of proms have emerged in more recent years—ones that are not tied to school-sanctioned events. Alternative proms for high school students grew out of a rejection of the social (and often moralized) restrictions put in place by prom organizers. And over at the grown-ups’ table, the White House Correspondence Dinner, an annual formal event that brings together Washington, DC, politicos, members of the fourth estate, and Hollywood stars, gained the nickname nerd prom in acknowledgement of some of its less-than-glamorous attendees.

Where are we going?

The rise of prom’s “hashtagability” is unsurprising, given that social media platforms designed to curate events using tracked terms are frequently used by the prom-going demographic. Prahm, a textual exaggeration of prom’s pronunciation (possibly meant to emphasize, or satirize, the OMG-excitement of the event), has been in use on Twitter since at least 2011, and #prahm and its ready-made spinoffs continue to have a productive life on Instagram:

If there’s one thing we can glean from the power of the prahm, it’s that you definitely no longer have to attend prom to experience it.