Bruh. I give up, breh. I’m telling you, brah, I endeavored to find a pattern: I wanted so badly to uncover the blueprint or even the architect behind the “Bro,” “Bruh,” “Breh,” “Brah” and “Bruv” complex. Which bros used which version, and where, and why. I believed in my gut that bros — even if unbeknownst to themselves — must be adhering to some intrinsic fraternal “Bra-Vinci Code.” For days, I fed myself stories of a cryptograph lying in the depths of a hidden Bro-tlantis that specifically said: This is when you use “Bruh,” instead of “Bro.” Or for that matter, this is when it’s more succinct to use “Breh” instead of “Bruh.” At the very least, I thought, there has to be a specific “Brah” demographic that was at least faintly in contrast to the folks who use “Breh,” or “Bruh.”
I wanted clear answers. But I was a fool. The bros are many things, including — even if unbeknownst to themselves — complex. And so, while I did largely find that purveyors of the many masks of “bro” often swing freely from one usage to the next, entangling themselves in a bro-lingo labyrinth, there are still some, albeit mostly overlapping, norms.
For example, in 2015, Taylor Jones — then a quantitative social scientist, getting his PhD from the Linguistics Department at the University of Pennsylvania — noted on his blog post that breh and brah are “suggestive of the California Vowel Shift, but this doesn’t mean that people who use it are from California,” he writes. “It may be that people are trying to build an identity evocative of something (say, a laid-back surfer) without being that thing.”
And he’s right. If you search for it on Twitter, “Brah,” with regard to people responding to news stories, is most often used in a way to evoke a certain irony or even dismissive attitude toward its subject. Which in this case is captured by “Brah” — the surfer archetype.
In that way, per Jones’ argument, the way we evaluate language — and therefore the way we interpret the many shades of “bro” — is about social factors, rather than anything inherent to the language itself. “In this instance, it would be difficult to claim, scientifically, that one or the other form is lazy: all three have the same number of segments, and the first two are the same,” he writes. “The only difference is the vowel: br[ʌ], br[ɛ], br[a], br[o], with the vowels in brother, bed, cot and flow, respectively.”
So the difference then, according to Jones’ blog post, is that if “bro” is considered the default, “the other three index identity.” To his same point, using “Bruh,” according to Jones, claims a different persona. “Bruh is stereotypically black, and conforms to a common way of truncating words in African American English (which I discuss briefly here; cf. luh ‘love,’ belee ‘believe,’ cuh ‘cousin,’ etc.).”
Admittedly, Jones’ data was based on a very cursory attempt. “What I found was basically that the best predictor for all varieties was population (that is, people tweet where people are) but that things like total black population or percent black population did not seem to have a terribly strong effect on which variant was used,” he concluded.
Before Jones got somewhat scientific about the many masks of “bro,” Jezebel writer Madeleine Davies pointed out that the bro-gamut is in fact just a result of “inbrovators” realizing they could push “bro” to its least amount of effort extremity. “‘Stop saying the ‘oh’ sound,’ one said to another, probably at a Phish show,” she writes. “‘Say ‘bruh’ instead. Your mouth has to work, like, half as hard.’ This was the greatest development in the casual lifestyle since the first ultimate frisbee player realized that you could wear a visor both backwards and upside-down. The world would never be the same again.”
If you’re shaking your head right now, like, “Breh, WTF?,” that’s perfectly understandable. You’re also not alone.
“To be honest, I don’t know what the functions of each one of these are,” says University of Pittsburgh linguistics professor Scott Kiesling, who has previously argued that the use of “bro” is thriving in part because it has become a more productive, specific identifier than dude, man or buddy. “I actually went and did a Twitter search and was looking through them and couldn’t discern what was going on. But if you did a larger study, you could probably find some demographic differences by, say, region or race or something like that. I did seem to notice that the bruvs were more in England, but that makes sense.”
He’s right about British bros calling each other bruv (according to Google’s dictionary, “a colloquial pronunciation for bruvver,” beginning in the late 19th century). But for our purposes, let’s set the limey bruv aside and focus on the yankees. Cool bro?
For starters, Kiesling notes that variation is inherent to language, and that playing with and changing words is something we consistently do to make language more interesting. During that process, we establish an “identity relationship,” similar to the one Jones referred to above. “One of the reasons that happens is that there’s a group of people that wants to signal kinship, friendliness or solidarity with other people in a particular way, and that develops as these different ways of speaking,” explains Kiesling. “Then, especially something like bro, once you have one variant, people start to get creative and start to make up three or four. I’m going to use this one, and you’re going to recognize it, and that other person uses brah, but that’s not quite the way I do it, so that sort of excludes them a little bit.”
Basically, it’s just another way of “being in the club,” which is most clearly indicated by knowing how to use it the right way. “They’re all the kind of thing where you’re showing solidarity with a person,” he says. “I kind of have a theory about how masculinity also has this valence of masculine ease. People talk about masculinity being associated with power, but it’s not just about trying to be powerful, but how easily it comes for me.”
This idea of “masculine ease,” says Kiesling, is best explained as a way of moving through the world that suggests, “‘I’ve got my sh*t together,’ or ‘I’m going to get what I want and I don’t have to try too hard,’” he explains. “It’s almost like a swagger. I think about powerful men in suits, but sitting in a laid-back, relaxed way, because they don’t have to be in the job interview, sitting straight-up, right? Then this idea that I’m going to be able to just say things and they’re going to happen.” Think male privilege, but turned up to e-brev-en.
The variable forms of bro display an affinity for being secretive and rebellious, too. “Those spellings represent this, like, ‘This is the way we really say it, and I’m going to say it that way, and since my teacher isn’t checking my spelling, we can get away with that together,’” says Kiesling.
The spelling is also somewhat dictated by where it lands in a sentence. Kiesling tells me that based on a Twitter search, “Bruh,” is more often used at the beginning of a sentence. This feature of “Bruh” v. “Breh,” he attributes to getting maximum impact for the term. “So, bruh is shorter,” he explains. “The U-H, right? That’s kind of a reduced utterance, if you’re going to say it that way. If you say [bruh] at the end, it could get lost — if you’re going to be emphatic, say bro or brah at the end. You want a vowel that’s going to be a little bit more full, and the ‘O’ and the ‘Ah’ are going to give you more. They hold the stress better.”
Of course, Kiesling admits that the above hypothesis is little more than an informed guess, and that people switch up their bro/uh/ah placements all the time. He is, however, more conclusive about the fact that we’re unlikely to return to referring to each other as “brother,” and that “bro,” too, will slowly fade away into the br-ether.
“I mean, if you look at how these things tend to happen — and it seems to be true in some other languages as well, and other situations — they expand to become address terms that transcend age, gender, race and location,” says Kiesling. “People don’t even notice when people use ‘man’ anymore as an address term. Like, ‘Oh, man.’ Now I hear of people’s four-year-old calling their mother dude. But they’re not calling her a dude, they’re just using ‘dude’ to say, ‘I’m making this casual statement.’ So it’s like it expands away from actually being about the person you’re talking to, and about how to take the thing you’re saying.”
In that way, Kiesling believes these terms are useful for helping you understand how to emotionally understand the utterance a little better. “In written work, it’s really helpful, because then you know, ‘Oh, okay, that’s not serious. It has ‘bruh’ in it.’”
To Kiesling’s point, Davies notes that amongst her colleagues, the saying “OK BRO” represents a meaning beyond its gendered inception, and is in fact meant to be dismissive. “Most of our staffers, it turns out, use it as an insult,” she writes. “‘OK BRO’ is an easy way to dismiss someone’s lunkheaded opinion or a friend’s bad joke.”
This makes for a refreshing twist on the way female slang pronouns have traditionally been exploited to represent something as lesser by the men who use them. “[Historically speaking], it’s always been more derogatory if men are calling each other in a feminine address term,” says Kiesling. “It’s the same idea of, it’s ‘worse’ for a man who wants to be masculine to be called a sissy than it is for a woman to be called a tomboy, right? It’s like, the woman is moving into a powerful category, and the man is moving into a non-powerful category.”
But back to our initial analysis, where I must admit that things are only going to become more confusing as “bro” continues to evolve into its seemingly infinite obscure sub-bro-tomic particles — according to one Reddit thread, “bryh” may be next in line to make its pass as the de facto usage. The truth — God knows there isn’t really one here — is that I, too, am complicit in further complicating this web of vape-smoke and mirrors, because I have used these various forms of “bro” in ways that, linguistically speaking, do not follow any strict rules. In fact, even if there was a single unifying theory of the many modules of “bro,” I’m not sure anyone would care. After all, breh, as long as the person you’re speaking to knows what you’re talking about when you’re talking about “Bruh,” you’re chillin.