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.
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.”
Bro’s use as a simple abbreviation appears to have remained fairly consistent during subsequent centuries. But its slang usage really took off during the past 100 years or so as it gained popularity in the black community as a replacement for brother in conversation. (Use of the term brother in the black church, Adams says, can be definitively dated back to at least the early 20th century, though “that’s partly just the emergence of African-American culture into print, so it’s quite likely that brother associated with the church has a longer history. It just ends up not being recorded anywhere.”)
While the heavy use of brother by those participating in social movements during the 1960s helped propel bro into the realm of casual conversation among activists, its more broad ascendance into the pop cultural pantheon after that was mostly due to lots of white kids trying to seem cool by emulating black slang. As the 20th century advanced, first brother and then bro became progressively more common in black speech says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics expert who teaches at Berkeley’s School of Information. “Then,” he adds, “like everything else in black English, it’s appropriated and reinterpreted both deliberately and unwittingly by other speakers.”
This is an old, familiar story with respect to slang progression, Adams notes. “In so many ways, from the jazz age, right up through hip-hop,” he says, “African-Americans have been doing hip things, and white people have been trading on that cultural production, if you want to call it that, in order to prove that they are also hip.”
Of course, that sort of appropriation by no means guarantees that the resulting use, or any contemporary reinterpretation of the word, is destined to live on forever. And, according to both Nunberg and Adams, bro haters may have some reason to be encouraged by how the word has veered off in different directions as usage increased.
Adams contends that the mocking and parodying that has begun to attach to bro’s usage may not bode well for the term’s longevity. “The great Russian formalist critic Bakhtin once pointed out that every genre ends in parody of itself in literary form, and there are ways in which slang also moves toward that parody status,” he says. “So that when something is about ready to explode or die out, when it will be finally used up, is when people have gotten it to the stage of parody.”
Adams also believes the future of bro may to a large extent depend on the persistence of what are considered to be the foremost breeding grounds for bros: fraternities and other all-male organizations. “How residential are our universities going to be 30 years from now?” Adams asks. “Or how many people will be at home taking courses via computer and having other social associations that don’t have to do with getting together only with men.” While admitting that gaming bros and other online bro groupings could still thrive in such a scenario, he says a future wherein people—foremost young people—congregate in person less often could help speed the decline of bro. “The future of the term is going to depend on whether there are social phenomena that require use of the term, or make use of the term somehow evidently useful to some people.”
But even if nothing changes on that front, and men still convene in person with regularity down the line, bro still may not be safe.
“My first instinct would be to say that this word is going [away],” Nunberg says. “It’s too self-conscious. It’s too marked. It’s too easily ridiculed to be around for long. And because bro is associated with all these portmanteaus and derivatives, that’s a good sign it’s not going to be around. Those things never are. Every once in a while something like infotainment sticks around. But these sorts of words tend to climb up on the beach, and then get pulled down with the next tide.”
Both Adams and Nunberg declined to speculate as to whether such a tide might arrive next year, in a few decades, or even centuries from now. And rightly so. Asking for a precise prediction about something as fluid and unpredictable as language progression is a silly endeavor. It is, as one might say, for now at least, a clown question, bro.