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How brothers became buddies and bros

The Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) latest update includes more than 1,800 fully revised entries, including the entry for brother and many words relating to it. During the revision process, entries undergo new research, and evidence is analyzed to determine whether additional meanings and formations are needed. Sometimes, this process results in a much larger entry. Such is the case with the entries for buddy and bro, both of which ultimately trace their roots back to brother.

These two words were first covered in the 1972 Supplement of the OED with modest entries of just a single noun sense; in the revised entries bro has eight senses and one compound and buddy has five senses and five compounds. The length of the entries is vastly expanded: buddy is now more than eight times longer than it was in 1972, while bro is more than 14 times longer. 

What happened to buddy and bro between 1972 and 2016? Some of the increased length merely reflects the increase in electronic resources and decrease in space constraints in the present-day OED, but it also reflects the increased prominence and diversifying use of the words since the mid-20th century. OED editors compiled and published additional draft material for both entries in the intervening decades, but it is now brought together in complete entries for the first time, enabling us to make apples-to-apples comparisons between these words and many others formed in a similar way.

When does a pronunciation become a new word?

The English lexicon expands in innumerable ways. For instance, new words can be borrowed from other languages (café), arise through imitation of a sound (like oink or boom), and be formed from existing English words by combining two words (cupcake), blending parts of two words together (as in brunch), adding prefixes or suffixes (nationalize or unfriend), or through various types of alteration (like the respelling of phat). One way in which existing words are altered is by spelling them to represent a particular pronunciation. This might be an exaggerated pronunciation (as in puh-leeze), or a regional or colloquial one (like pardner); when these become entrenched, they sometimes cease to be the equivalents of the words they derived from, and begin to take on new meanings.

The word brother has generated a whole passel of such derivations. The OED now records at least ten distinct words based wholly or in part on regional or colloquial pronunciations of brother: bra (often spelled brah in the United States), bredda, Brer, bro, bruhbruv, bruvver, bud, buddy, and Buh. Although they share little in common besides their first letter, all of these spellings are in some way attempts to reflect the way brother was pronounced in a particular type of speech. (Bro and buddy have slightly more complex stories, in that the former was used as a straightforward graphical abbreviation before it came to represent a regional pronunciation, and the latter may be influenced by other dialect words and by the suffix -y.) These ten words all have a connection to brother but they have developed in different ways, not all of which overlap with the meanings of the word brother itself. 

Semantic evolution

The chart below shows the main senses covered in the revised OED entries for the ten words derived at least partly from regional pronunciations of brother. These are the meanings that were most fully evidenced in the historical record for each word. Almost all of these meanings can be traced back to similar usages of brother, but buddy and bro—the two most commonly used words—have also developed unique meanings for which there is no equivalent in brother.

words-derived-from-brother

The earliest use of any of the words is the simple use of bro. as a graphic abbreviation of brother, meaning that it would have been pronounced as the full word. The revised entry finds evidence more than a century earlier than previously known, in the scholar Thomas Lupset’s A Treatise of Charitie, published posthumously in 1533. The abbreviation eventually came to be pronounced as it was spelled in the meaning ‘a male sibling’, for humorous effect, but that development seems to have happened separately from, and later than, the use of the word to represent a regional pronunciation.

The next usage to arise was as a means of addressing a man directly. This is the most common meaning, appearing in eight of the ten words, and appears first in buddy, as part of a depiction of ‘negro’ speech by the composer Charles Dibdin from 1788. Similar use of bredda, bra, and bud is attested in the 19th century, and of bro, bruvver, and bruv in the 20th. Below is a selection of characteristic examples:

  • Ah how you do buddy. (1788, Charles Dibdin, Musical Tour)
  • Bra, da whi side unoo da go? (1869, H.G. Murray, Tom Kittle’s Wake)
  • ‘Marning sister’; ‘Marning bredder’. (1894, Daily Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica))
  • ‘Thanks, bro,’ the driver said. (1957, Herbert Simmons, Corner Boy)
  • ‘Hey, bruh,’ I called. ‘You callin’ me?’ (1967, Piri Thomas, Down these Mean Streets)
  • Let me put you out of your misery, bruvva. (1988, Times)
  • I know it looks bad right now bruv, but you mustn’t give up. (1997, EastEnders)
  • Look brah, this game right here’s going to be your breakout game. (2014, Y. Post)

Another common strand of meaning, appearing in six of the entries, is use as a title preceding a man’s name (“Bro’ Bill”). This is associated especially with Caribbean and southern African-American use, and much of the evidence is preceding the names of animal characters from folklore:  Brer Rabbit, Bro Fox, Bredda Toad, etc. Bra is first recorded in this way in Caribbean use, but since the mid-20th century it has been associated more often with South African English as a respectful title preceding a man’s first name; this usage seems to have emerged independently.

Interestingly, although “male sibling” is the most common and familiar use of brother in contemporary English, it doesn’t occur earliest or most often among these derivatives. However, it does turn up in a variety of different regional contexts, from Cockney bruvver to Jamaican bredda to American regional bud.

  • Forgive us all, ‘specially Helun, for bein’ so cross ter her little bruvver. (1867, Arthur’s Home Magazine)
  • ‘My bud’s in the Marines on Guadal,’ a girl will say. (1945 in American Speech)
  • We know what our ‘Arold and ‘is bruvvers think of us. (1966, ‘Simon Harvester’, Treacherous Road)
  • Nowadays, you cyaan trust some buddy an sissy never mind them come-out pon one mumma-belly. (1992, Rooplall Monar, High House & Radio)
  • She was buried de next aftahnoon. By de next day, her breddah was also gone. (2006, Carolita Blythe, Cricket’s Serenade)

The root word brother has been used from its earliest days to indicate a notion of fellowship, and to apply to various non-blood relationships between men. Both of these strands of development carry over into some of our derivatives. For instance, brother’s use to indicate a fellow member of a particular group, (a comrade in arms, for example, or a fellow black person) is echoed by similar senses of bro, bredda, and bra, which are sometimes extended to a more generalized meaning akin to ‘guy’ or ‘dude’. Brother can also be used of a particularly close friend, a brother in all but blood (or more snappily, a brother from another mother, attested from 1989 in the entry added to the OED in this update). This meaning is echoed in half of our brother-derived words, but is associated particularly with buddy and, more recently, bro.

Buddies and bros

Buddy and bro are unquestionably the most well-established of these brother-derived words, and the 20th century saw both of them increase in frequency and develop new meanings.

080710-N-8968M-124 ST JOHN'S, Antigua (July 10, 2008) Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Aaron Heldreth checks bottle pressures with his buddy diver, Constable Gaveline Brouet, a Region Security Service diver from St. Lucia, during Navy Diver-Global Fleet Station 2008. The mission of Global Fleet Station is to maintain strong multi-lateral partnerships support the U.S. maritime strategic goals of enhancing regional stability and security by promoting multinational working relationships. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kori L. Melvin (Released)
A Navy buddy diver team checking their gauges together. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kori L. Melvin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

By the late 19th century, buddy had begun to acquire the special connotation which remains unique to it today—a person who is responsible for ensuring the safety or well-being of another, typically in a reciprocal pairing (as in buddy system). This grew out of a use of buddy to refer to either member of a pair of miners working in the same area of a mine. Another strand of meaning arose from this nuance during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, referring to a person providing emotional support for a patient with AIDS, or (later) other incapacitating diseases. 

Buddy’s usage began to rise precipitously between 1910 and 1920. As a term of address, it came to be associated particularly with American English, sometimes with sarcastic or aggressive overtones (“outta my way, buddy!”). Over the course of the 20thcentury, buddy also took on special uses related to different communication media. First, it was adopted in the language of Citizen’s Band radio (“10-4 good buddy!”). Later, it became conventional to refer to a film focusing on a close friendship (typically between men) as a buddy film or buddy comedy. And in the 1990s, when America Online (AOL) was on the cutting edge of computer communications, the term buddy list was introduced to refer to a display featuring a list of the user’s contacts in a messaging application.

Bro, on the other hand, did not see a significant increase in usage until the late 20thcentury. Buddy remains a much more common word in English, but corpus evidence suggests that bro is beginning to gain ground, probably due in part to its most recent meaning, defined in full in the newly revised OED entry as:

Orig. and chiefly US young man characterized as someone who addresses his friends and associates as ‘bro’; esp. one belonging to and socializing with a close-knit group of male peers, typically participating in activities perceived as male-oriented or unintellectual, and sometimes displaying boisterous or rowdy behaviour. Frequently somewhat depreciative.

As I’ve discussed in a previous post on the history of bro, this usage has become exceptionally productive in producing further new words by compounding (like bro hug (2001), first added to the OED in this update) and blending into so-called “portmanbros” (like bromance (2001), first added to the OED in 2013). In our present decade, each day seems to bring a new bro formation, from brogrammer to Bernie bro; many of these may never qualify for inclusion in the dictionary, but it seems likely that we will be tracking many more such words in the coming years.

Although ultimately derived from brother, bro and buddy have by now developed completely independent identities, effacing their original meaning. Their brethren, the other words discussed here, represent many different stages in the life cycle of words. Buh and Brer seem to be calcified in their folklore use, and are relatively rare, even moribund. In contrast, bra, bruv, and bruh are on the rise—they may go on to develop their own unique meanings, to be covered in future updates of the OED.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords Blog.

Featured Image: “best friends” by John D. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Conner

    How about bubba? It’s used as a generic and a full-fledged nickname.

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