No, not the bra that provides appreciated support to countless women around the world.
Originally posted to the now-defunct Vox blog on May 4, 2007.
- Added Desmond Dekker song links
I have been thinking about the slang word “bra,” which I already know is short for “brother” and used pretty much the same way I, as a West coast slacker, would use the word “dude.” First of all, I think it is a cool word and I would use it all the time if it didn’t sound so affected coming out of my lips. Second, where the heck did it start?
The first time I heard the word “bra” was watching Dog the Bounty Hunter a couple of years ago. Why are you looking at me like that? I enjoy cheesy, semi-moralistic entertainment as much as the next guy. I figured “bra” was Hawaiian surfer slang and didn’t think much more about the word’s origin.
NoteMy TV close captioning and a couple of readers point out that the spelling for the Hawaiian version is “brah.” I’m on a roll, though.
Last year I heard the term again, listening to Ob La Di Ob La Da by The Beatles.
I hadn’t listened to the song since before my exposure to Pacific Island bounty hunters, but this time the chorus jumped out at me:
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, Life goes on, bra
Of course I missed it before. It was just one more nonsense word in a chorus consisting almost entirely of nonsense words. But now I am thinking of it as a word and there are a few things I’m suddenly driven to do.
- Make sure that they really are singing “bra” and not something else.
- Find out where this usage started!
It was easy to confirm the lyrics. A few seconds at Google took me to Steve’s Beatle Page, which provided lyrics. The page also had some notes about the recording itself, like the fact that it was recorded in July of 1968. That is useful information. The earliest usage I’ve found so far is 1968, if I make the reasonable assumption that the Beatles meant “bra” the way I think they meant “bra.” It makes a little more sense than it being a nonsense word, and a lot more sense than the idea that they suddenly start blurting out the names of women’s undergarments like Jeff from Coupling.
Let’s see if Wikipedia can provide anything useful.
“Bra”, slang for Brother.
So … no. Wikipedia is not going to be helpful this time. Oh well, I wouldn’t have trusted the drunken wiki monkeys if they did have more information on the subject. Google is having trouble, too. The more common usage of “bra” refers to a breast support contraption, but I’m not worried about finding what I need to know. This will just take a couple of extra minutes to dig deeper into the Internet hive mind.
I thought I’d give Urban Dictionary a try, but it’s worse than useless. One definition that esepcially bugs me is trying to tell me that “bra” is just like “bro” but pronounced different. No kidding. But why is it pronounced different? That curiosity is what’s driving my little search. The entry does have a grainy picture of an attractive bosom in a lovely pink brassiere, so I guess it wasn’t a complete waste.
Let’s go back to Google, this time looking for “bra slang brother”. South African slang is referred to a few times. This looks promising.
bru - male friend (shortening of broer meaning brother, see also bra below); compare American English: “dude”
brah - male friend (shortening of brother, se also bru above)
These were on the Wikipedia entry for African slang words - maybe the drunken wiki monkeys could link from the bra disambiguation page to the South African slang page. The exact list is on a few other sites, but I can’t tell who is plagiarizing who.
I see that somebody else is on a similar quest, judging by a post on the wordreference.com forums. One of the posters there believes that the word is Hawaiian surfer slang that couldn’t have existed in 1967 — or 1968, as my info has shown me — or that Paul McCartney would not have been familiar with it if it did exist. I don’t think I agree with either assumption. Even if it was nothing more than Hawaiian surfer slang, it could have had its origins a long time ago. After all, Hawaii has been home to surfers for centuries, and to casual surfers since 1905. And the Beatles didn’t exactly spend all their days locked up in a Liverpool basement.
The “broer” link is really tickling my curiosity. The BBC h2g2 is willing to put its foot down and say firmly that “bra” derives from the Afrikaans word “broer” and had its first usage in Cape Town. I love listening to people speaking Afrikaans or Dutch. So many of the words are similar to their English equivalents that my brain gets very frustrated that it can’t understand what is being said. Listening to Dutch as an English speaker is fairly similar to listening to English after you’ve had a night of intensely heavy drinking. You know the words - or you think you know the words - you just can’t make sense of what anyone is saying.
A listing of South African slang suggests that the rolled “r” at the end of “broer” is too hard for lazy English speakers, and that’s how it got shortened to “bru” and “bra.” I can believe that. You should hear my attempts at speaking Spanish sometime. So at this point it looks like usage of “bra” as equivalent to “bro” or “dude” may have from somewhere in the area of Cape Town, South Africa. Or perhaps not.
What about that Beatles song? Well, this one should have been obvious to me from the start. Paul McCartney was grooving on the reggae! Jamaican Desmond Dekker, considered by some to be the first reggae star, had recently released singles in England — 007 (Shanty Town) in 1967, and Israelites in 1968 (although the hit version wasn’t released until 1969). There was at least one popular reggae track floating around in the ether while Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da was being written. In fact, the Desmond referred to in the song is none other than Desmond Dekker. I highly recommend listening to Dekker’s “King of Ska” if you can find the track. It is good stuff, and you can hear the influence he had on … pretty much every ska or reggae song that came after.
“Bra” is Jamaican slang for “brother,” according to the Dictionary of Jamaican English. It was first recorded in that form in 1943, which of course means that it could have been widespread in Jamaican slang by 1967-1968. Interestingly enough, “bra” is a shortened form of the Jamaican slang “bro’er” from 1907. “Bro’er” looks a lot like “broer”, but it apparently doesn’t have the same roots. Remember what I was saying before about Dutch/Afrikaans and English? I think this is a good example.
“Bro’er” might sound more familiar to Americans as “Brer,” as in Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit was the source of my favorite underdog stories as a small child. Oh. I’ve been pronouncing “Brer” wrong my whole life. First off, it’s supposed to be a shortened form of the English word “brother,” with the ending “er” sound softened dramatically — a Southern thing, I think. You end up with something sounding more like “Bruh Rabbit.” “Bra” may in fact have split origins: one thread coming from the Southern US and Jamaica, and the other coming from South Africa.
The drunken monkeys tell us that the “Brer” in Brer Rabbit’s name came about due to a custom in many African cultures of people referring to each other as “brother.” I’m too tired now to verify this — which may be the ultimate source of Wikipedia’s power — but it’s a piece of trivia that amuses me. The character Desmond (probably not named after the King of Ska) in the show Lost (filmed in Hawaii, home state of that endearingly scruffy bounty hunter of basic cable who says “bra” all the time) also has a habit of addressing everybody as “brother”. I love random connections.
I think that’s enough time spent exploring the origins of a single random slang term.