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The rise of the portmanbro

How an abbreviation of brother became a word-forming dynamo

For most of its existence in English, the word bro led a quiet and unassuming life. For centuries, it was merely a graphic abbreviation of brother (properly bro.), occasionally put to colloquial use, like sis, to refer to a person’s male sibling. It wasn’t until the 20th century that bro’s meaning began to stray from familial relationships and religious titles. More recently still, the word has taken on new life as a productive element forming new words and compounds, like brogrammer (a loutish male computer programmer), or curlbro (a gym rat who focuses too much attention on his biceps). But what sparked that shift from bland abbreviation to neologistic phenom?

A metonymic shift?

Bro’s meaning had begun to expand by the mid-20th century. It came to refer simply to a man (a synonym of ‘fellow’ or ‘guy’), or sometimes more specifically a black man. The rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in 1976, “if we the (presumably) white jass-buffs couldn’t get with it maybe it was only meant for the bros.” Bro also became common as a term of direct address (“Hey, bro!”). These developments gave bro a bigger semantic footprint, but they didn’t completely sever the tie with brother, which had been used in similar ways even earlier.

By the 1970s, though, bro began to break new ground, untethered from brother. It came to mean not merely a guy, but a male friend. For instance, in the film script for the 1992 comedy Encino Man, the stage directions state: “Stoney and Hank have been bros since grammar school.” By the end of the century, another, more subtle shift had begun to take place as well. Bro, as used in all of the ways described above, became particularly associated with a certain type of young man, a conventional guy’s guy who spends a lot of time partying with other young men like himself.

The specific cultural attributes of such men are shifting and elusive, but one defining feature is a tendency to use the word bro. A lot. (The character Barney Stinson, played by Neil Patrick Harris on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, is the quintessence of a certain iteration of the contemporary bro, and his dialogue is liberally peppered with the word.) In some circles, these hard-partying dude’s dudes are also known as “bro-brahs”, compounding bro with brah, another of their favored utterances (also etymologically derived from brother). An article in a skiing magazine in 1994 said, “lt’s a nice mellow scene, even when the California bro-brahs come to town.”

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. Nonetheless, the essence of bro-dom is in the eye of the beholder: 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. The NPR Codeswitch blog recently delineated 4 basic aspects of bro-iness: jockish, dudely, stoner-ish, and preppy. Their analysis noted that today’s bro is typically, if not exclusively, white, an interesting departure from the earlier African-American connotations of the word. This is a level of nuance that a conventional dictionary entry is ill-suited to describe: the semantic boundaries are subjective and in constant flux.

The new brocabulary

The emergent cultural prominence of this more nuanced bro has been accompanied by a rise of new coinages based on the word. With its instantly recognizable consonant cluster, bro lends itself not only to compounding, as in bro-hug (an awkward hug between bros) or bro-step (dubstep for bros), but also to blending, that favorite technique of humorous neologists, who have coined such portmanteaux as bro-down (from hoedown), bromance (from romance), and brohemian (from bohemian).

By 2009, the trend was sufficiently established that a term had been coined for such neologisms: portmanbros (which is of course itself a portmanbro; see also portmansnow). The proliferation of bro- words in many ways recalls the popularity of man- compounds and blends in recent years (manscaping, mansplaining, man cave, etc.), but whereas those words tend to refer to the masculine sex in general, bro- words generally concern a much smaller sliver of it.

Most portmanbros are stunt coinages, with little hope of being widely adopted, but some have demonstrated staying power. Bromance, referring to intimate friendship between young men, was recently entered into the OED, and in the process of tracing its history, researchers discovered what may be the original catalyst of all of this portmanbro-ing. When editors appealed for earlier evidence, frequent OED Appeals contributor ‘Hugo’ unearthed an example from 2001, in the magazine TransWorld Surf:

Bromance—Romance between bros. Example: ‘It looks like there’s a bit of bromance between Ryan and Matt.’

2001 TransWorld Surf Apr., p. 40

This definition was part of a recurring feature in the magazine called Bro-isms, a reader-submitted glossary of humorous made-up words formed from bro and brah. For example:

ambrodextrous—A bro who can throw a shaka with his left or right hand.

brahphet—The guy who thinks he knows everything.

brobituary—A short description of an ex bro who went off and got married.

The bro-isms belong to what has become an established comic form: the facetious dictionary entry. The comic potential of the dictionary definition was recognized by Samuel Johnson (see his notorious definitions for oats, lexicographer, etc.), revived in sublime form by Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary, and has by now become endemic with both real and invented words, as countless humorous T-shirts and Urban Dictionary entries attest. In the case of bromance, a word apparently invented as a punchline actually went on to enter common usage.  It seems unlikely that ambrodextrous will meet the same fate, but plenty of other portmanbros have achieved widespread currency: bro-hug has appeared in the New York Times at least 8 times since 2010, and brogrammer has recently shot to prominence in discussions about the gender politics of Silicon Valley. There is a self-fulfilling aspect to this: once bro-isms existed as a comic trope, people invented more of them, increasing the likelihood that at least some would succeed.

Ultimately, though, the neologistical fecundity of bro is probably due to a serendipitous combination of form and function. It is true that in bro there is an identifiable subculture ripe for (often self-inflicted) mockery, but there are plenty of other subcultures that become prominent in the public discourse without producing blends. Hipster, for example, is having a cultural moment, but it tends to be used linguistically as a straightforward modifier (hipster glasses, hipster jeans), without the playfulness of the bro compounds and blends. It is tempting to attribute this distinction to the blending potential of the word forms themselves; attempts at hipster blends, like blipster (black hipster) and yupster (yuppie hipster), lack the easy analysis of bro- words. The punning potential of bro is difficult to resist, even when the results are groan-worthy; any word with a strong -o- syllable is fair game. Someone should do a study—they could call it their magnum bropus.