While waiting in Boston’s South Station last week, a man with a thick accent asked for information about the coming bus. After hearing my reply, he said “Thanks, Brother!” (That is, “Bruthah” brʌðə). “Brother,” as commonplace as the word may seem, is a renowned bit of slang in Boston English (and probably elsewhere in Eastern New England), roughly akin, it seems, to British and Australian “mate.” But why (and how) is the word particular to the city?
In an interview on a talk show, Ben Affleck once claimed that “brother” has various meanings in Boston depending on context (I wish I could find the bit on Youtube). This observation may have been exaggerated for the purposes of humor, so I wouldn’t assign it much sociolinguistic rigor. But the word definitely seems to be a common term of endearment in that area.
“Brother,” of course, has had currency in other subcultures and ethnolects, but like “wicked,” Boston uses the word in a way that seems unique to the region. Yet I can’t quite put my finger on how it’s unique. Perhaps it’s the way the word can be applied to total strangers (like a fellow passenger on a bus) that seems so unusual.
Unfortunately, like many household words with dialectally specific meanings, “brother” is a search engine black hole. So in lieu of articles or books on the subject, two plausible theories come to mind:
1.) Unabbreviated “brother” was once common everywhere, but remained stronger in Boston while there was a shift toward “bro” (or other terms) elsewhere in America.
2.) “Brother” is an entirely separate development in Boston.
Lending credence to hypothesis 1 is that Boston is a strikingly conservative city, linguistically-speaking. For instance, as far as I can tell it is once of the only major cities in America where young, Caucasian English speakers are quite so resolutely non-rhotic.
Then again, that very linguistic conservatism could suggest “brother” evolving from an entirely different source. Any Bostonians care to comment?