Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Don't Suffix Me, Bro: Rise of the Dudebro

Once upon a time, fellas, gentleman, and guys roamed the land. Eventually, we become dudes. Unfortunately, many of us became bros.

What's a bro? As Erin Gloria Ryan  puts it (in a piece that identifies many species of bro, including the Chicago bro, the Mid-Atlantic bro, the Southern frat bro, and the Brooklyn bro) "...a bro is a young, usually unmarried, often immature guy who just does what everyone else his age seems to be doing." Often, that involves being a jackass, especially one with a popped collar and/or backwards baseball cap.

Bro is also a staple of word-making. Arnold Zwicky has been a tireless recorder of bromanteaus such as broga and brogrammer. Many bro terms are pure ridiculousness, such as Broseph Stalin and Broko Ono, two people who seem like the least likely candidates for bromantic love. Based on sheer prolificness, bro may be the affix of the decade. And just as real-life bros tend to yell "Whoo!" in unexpected places, bro is getting around as a lexical unit too: words like the somewhat redundant dudebro and the amusing girlbro show bro is also a suffix.

The most common example of bro suffixation I've seen is dudebro, and I've enjoyed plumbing the depths of this word for a shallow guy. Most uses seem to suggest that the bro part is the bad part, and that might be informed by Jill Filopovic's 2012 article in The Guardian, which I believe helped spread the term. In "Dude or dude-bro: ten ways to tell," Filopovic writes, "Bros are a scourge on American culture, and their intense conformity is disturbing in itself. But they're also displaying a toxic brand of masculinity that's harmful to both men and women. Dude-bro culture centers on a conventional masculinity that doesn't leave room for much individuality, let alone serious deviation from heterosexual male norms." In other words, bros and dude-bros are dudes gone wrong: dumb men, sexist men, homophobic men, and just plain annoying men. They're like Axe Body Spray commercials come to life. Wiktionary shows that dudebro goes back to at least 2003, in an example that mentions: "lameass dudebros."

As you'd imagine, many uses lament a dudebro's lack of intelligence and/or restraint: "the smallest unit of time in the universe is that between a feminist post and a whining dudebro." As in the real world, non-dudebros often want to avoid dudebros online: "the reason I don't want to get into a lot of stuff even if it looks cool (video games+western comics) is that the fanbases are so dudebro." Some examples are pretty darn clever: "say 'privilege' into a mirror 3 times at midnight and a white dudebro in a fedora will appear. 'well actually…,' he wails." Thanks to Ben Zimmer for alerting me to the inverse term in a Flavorwire discussion of Saturday Night Live: "The saccharine adorbs slowly dissipate when we see the duo in the laundry room and later when Beck Bennett's bro-dude shows up —both unexpected, hilarious moments."

Bro suffixation doesn't end there. The dudebro has a few close relations, like the type of fella discussed here: "The ultimate douchebro is talking really loudly on the phone to what I'm guessing is the penultimate douchebro. #traintweets." Apparently, there's a higher level of douchedom: "Moose's Washbag is no more, replaced first by the Bottle Cap, and now by uber-douchebro eatery The Square, overflowing w/ noise & privilege."

Then there's the hipster bro, who sounds marginally less offensive: "Hipster bro sits next to me everyday. Majestic beard. Always brings a newspaper to class. We have a silent respect for each other." That term brings to mind a term famously applied to Cosmo Kramer: hipster doofus. There are also jerkbros. Sometimes that word is used as a hashtag: "Funny how every time I do something you get all ticked off but when your friends do the same thing, you think it's hilarious #JerkBro". That example is a little puzzling. I can't tell if it's being used solely as an insult, or of the tweeter (a guy) is embracing the term. Is jerkbro pride a thing?

Weirdly, there are also girlbros: "Bros never let other bros do something he will regret seriously. Example: cheat on girlbro. #BroCode" I've also seen ladybro. In some cases, girlbros and ladybros are contemporary versions of the tomboy. Though bros are usually disparaged, sometimes bro words like ladybro simply refer to a friend: "Enjoying the @warondrugsjames show with my #ladybro @the glorioushum."

Bro can also be reduplicated: "All I'm saying. Kodi, you were a cool cat homie. We kicked mad times. Always good vibes. Rest easy brobro. You'll be missed. Shine down us." Reduplication—which also creates words like night-night, higgledy-piggledy, and mumbo-jumbo—is different from suffixation, but the results can be similar. I'm sure many a beloved brobro is someone else's awful jerkbro.

Whether you hate bros or love your own biceps, it's undeniable that bro is a prolific, promiscuous word. Here's a remarkable use that shows word-coining is a pastime of bros and non-bros, jerks and non-jerks alike: "A dudebro seriously used the word 'brotein' in a sentence while 'insulting' me." Any word that allows bros and non-bros, dudebros and lady bros, to play along is powerful. Though bros bend over backwards to conform, bro can go anywhere and do anything. The word achieves a far richer life than its referent.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday April 30th, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
In 2012, a photo of Sen. Paul Ryan--then the GOP vice-presidential candidate--doing bicep curls popularized the coinage "curlbro." It turns out the word had originally surfaced in the UK a couple years earlier.
Thursday May 1st, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Seth Lee Abrams (Bigfork, MT)
I think the word "bro" is usually offensive (especially when used by someone you don't know at all) because it deliberately implies an intimacy between parties that simply does not exist. I'm new to Southern California, but here I find the word "boss" used the way bro is used sometimes. I am called boss by almost every cashier at gas stations and convenience stores. It seems to be used, once again, to establish sort of relationship that does not exist. It seems to work as a universal minor insult: I may be behind this counter and I have to deal with you, but you ain't my boss at all and never will be."
Saturday May 3rd, 12:27 AM
Comment by: Brendan M. (suwon Korea, Republic of (South Korea))
Using words like 'dude' & 'bro' may signal not only dialogue with a younger generation but also American cultural myopia. I'm not too sure many people speaking English abroad use these words randomly.

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