Bro has been used as a colloquial abbreviation of the word “brother” for hundreds of years--the OED has a citation from about 1660, “I accompanyd my Eldest Bro (who then quitted Oxford) into the Country.” In recent years, however, as a standalone word (sometimes facetiously pronounced “brah”), it has come to mean something much more specific: bro as in frat bro, a casual, popped-collar term of endearment for a fellow beer-drinking, sports-loving, vaguely collegiate, masculine dude.
Lately, bro- has expanded from being a form of address--“Hey, bro!”--and started to infiltrate the rest of the language. Used as a prefix, it can now be added to practically anything to serve as an all-around indicator of male-bonding culture.
The most successful bro- blend is probably the word bromance (meaning “a close platonic relationship between two men”) but there are dozens (if not hundreds) of bro-compounds that are more or less brona-fide. Unlike man- and guy- blends such as mandals (sandals for men), murses (purses for men), and guylights (highlights for guys), which are primarily ways to masculinize words for objects and practices associated with women, the bro- words take largely neutral terms and give them a coating of testosterone.
In fact, the number of words that can be prefixed with bro- is staggeringly brolific. If the first syllable of a word includes a long o sound, it seems that someone, somewhere, has substituted the letters b-r-o- for it or slapped them in front of it, but even non-o words can be blended with bro-. According to Urban Dictionary, which has hundreds of bro- coinages, there’s broap (bro + soap), Bro-Magnon (when your bro is so drunk, he resorts to behaving like a caveman), broletariat (”a working-class bro”), brotocol (the rules that govern bro behavior), brogrammer (bro + programmer), brodeo (bro + rodeo, “a social gathering of bros”), broptimism (the belief that your bros “will prevail”), brolliance (a pact among bros), bromiserate (to commiserate with one’s bros), bronomaly (behavior unusual for a bro), bropunzel (a bro with hair longer than shoulder-length), brobituary (a valedictory speech delivered at a bro’s wedding), and bromosphere (the ambience that bros find comfortable).
Perhaps the most unlikely bro- blend is Bronies, used to refer to male fans of the “My Little Pony” television cartoon and toys--a phenomenon whose surprising existence was recently reported in The Wall Street Journal. But because so many of these coinages are tongue-in-cheek, they all seem to be mildly self-parodying. One of the earliest bro- stories, from The Onion, deliberately pushed bro over the line into satire, including such unlikely forms as brovercame (bro + overcame), rebroach (bro + reproach), revbrolutionary (bro + revolutionary), bropensity (bro + propensity), and the proper names Mount Brolympus and Brosef Stalin.
In addition to serving as an all-purpose prefix, bros have their own language (the bronacular) as well: They like to rage (”party hard,” or engage intensely in any behavior), and preesh (”appreciate”) clippings such as croosh (”crucial”) and swoll (”swollen,” in the sense of having defined musculature). Should you need to communicate with a bro, you can always visit brospeak.com, a handy translator to convert your every utterance into his language, or consult the 2008 manual “Brocabulary: The New Man-i-festo of Dude Talk.”
Why this surge of brolloquialisms? Part of it is merely verbal playfulness, for the pleasure of indulging in creative word-blending. Part is mockery of dudeness in general, and frat-boy dudeness in particular. But at least some of the brofixing is used as a way to reassert maleness, to reclaim linguistic territory. It used to be that doing things in a masculine way was the default--in effect, every word had an invisible bro- prefix--and feminine or neuter was the exception, but that’s no longer the case. Brofixing calls attention to this change--in a mainly lighthearted and goofy way--but with (as suits its testosterone-laden origin) a little aggressiveness, too.
English has used affixes to highlight changes in gender roles before. In the early 20th century, when many jobs previously held only by men became available to women, there was a spurt of deliberately femininized forms: aviatrix, conductress, editress, sculptress, usherette, farmerette, and my personal favorite--chauffeuse, a female chauffeur. These were “marked forms”: Male was the default, so these words were created to communicate--and emphasize--the difference. But over time, as the gender of the worker became less remarkable, those gee-whiz forms became unnecessary, with even the more successful feminine forms, such as comedienne, actress, and waitress, being supplanted by comedian, actor, and the more neutral server. Bro- words move things in the opposite direction.
Most of these bro- words come with a healthy serving of irony: As stereotypically loutish behavior becomes less common and acceptable, calling attention to it with bro- terms highlights just how unusual it’s become. We may live in a more egalitarian, more gender-neutral world, but some people are using these bro- forms as a sort of minor protest. Or would that be a brotest?
Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.