The Meanings and Variations of “Brother”

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Brother, from the Old English word brothor and cognate with the Latin term frater and the Greek word phrater (both of which mean “fellow clan member”), means not only “a male with one or more parents in common” but has also come, by extension, to refer to a man with whom one has a bond or a common interest.

It also applies to national or racial commonality, as in the term “soul brother,” which in American English describes a black male. In addition, it can refer loosely to a male relative or generically to something that is similar to something else. In religious contexts, it denotes a minister or a member of a religious order who has not been ordained.

The plural is either brothers or, in formal and religious contexts, the archaic form brethren. The quality of being a brother, literally or figuratively, is brotherhood, and brotherly is the adverbial form.

A blood brother is literally a brother by birth or figuratively someone with whom one shares a bond of loyalty; originally, the term alluded to the ceremonial exchange of blood between two men, often by mingling blood at the point of a slight self-inflicted wound.

Brother-german is a technical legal term pertaining to the default definition of brother—“a man or boy who has both of the same parents as a given person,” as opposed to a half brother, who shares only one parent, or a stepbrother, the son of a stepparent. Likewise, a sister-german shares both parents with a given person. (The term german, from the Latin word germanus, means “having the same parents” and is unrelated to the proper noun referring to a person from Germany.)

Brother-in-arms originally strictly referred to a fellow combatant in the same military service, but by extension it alludes to anyone one is closely associated with. (Because women have only recently had a significant role in the military, no equivalent term developed for female soldiers, but the term sisters-in-arms has been employed sporadically, such as in the title of a documentary about female soldiers in combat.)

Idiomatic uses of brother include “brother’s keeper,” a reference to the biblical exchange in which Cain protests, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” when God asks the whereabouts of Cain’s brother Abel, whom Cain has killed. (The contemporary notion behind the phrase is of interdependent responsibility among people.) Meanwhile, “Big Brother” is a reference (from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four) to an all-seeing authoritarian leader or any government entity that practices oppressive surveillance or control. However, “big brother” also refers generically to one’s older male sibling or to a man who mentors a boy to whom he is not related.

Recent idioms include bromance, a portmanteau word from brother and romance, pertaining to depictions in popular culture of close platonic friendships among men, and brogrammer, a mash-up of brother and programmer that alludes to assertive, masculine computer programmers, a divergence from the stereotype of technologically adept but physically and socially awkward males.

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8 thoughts on “The Meanings and Variations of “Brother””

  1. In mixed groups, the term “brotherhood” and “brother” also subsumes “sisterhood” and “sister”, as in The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which definitely includes sisters, mothers, and daughters. Likewise, the phrase, “We are all brothers under the Lord,” includes all females as well as males, sexless people, transsexuals, and people of both sexes (hermaphrodites).
    Likewise, the International Ladies’ Garment Union (ILGU) includes a lot of male members, and I don’t think that members of this union only make clothing for ladies. I think that it is also true that they make clothing for girls, children of both sexes, transvestites, crossdressers, etc.
    I think that it is absurd to get bent out of shape about two sexes (especially since there are more than two), and not to recognize that “brotherhood”, “brother”, and “man” frequently include ALL human beings.
    In fact, I am one of many who consider brotherhood to include gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, dolphins, porpoises, and whales, and that killing and eating any of these beings amounts to cannibalism, and destroying their habitats amounts to torture.

    I haven’t gotten to the point of believing that using Asian elephants as workers amounts to slavery, as long as they are fed and treated well, because apparently they enjoy doing what they do, just as many horses and dogs enjoy their relationships with human beings, even when this involves work.

  2. Anne-Marie:
    This is a blog with a site owner/publisher and two contributing writers, not a publication with an editorial staff. Like my colleague, I strive to compose error-free posts, but even though I am an experienced editor as well as a writer, and despite the fact that I review my posts carefully (and find and correct errors while doing so), I occasionally overlook mistakes, and I have no editor or proofreader to back me up. I appreciate it when readers courteously point out errors so that I can ask the site’s owner to make corrections.

  3. @Anne-Marie Shaffer: Speaking for the readers and commenters, there is no edit function for response posts. So, unlike many sites, when you discover a typo in a post you’ve written here you have no second chance to edit or fix it. Once you post it, it’s done. Written in stoen.

  4. Yes, venqax, that is a bit quare (a very old-fashioned word – look it up), but members of the International Ladies’ Garment Union (ILGU) do make clothing for crossdressers, whether they ever think of this or not!
    By the way, I am supposing that you wrote this on purpose: “Written in stoen,” in which case my reaction is “LOL!”.

  5. Note: “In religious contexts, it denotes a minister or a member of a religious order who has not been ordained.”
    In MANY Protestant churches in North America, if not elsewhere, ordained ministers are addressed as “Brother James”, “Brother Johnson”, and even “Sister Sarah” or “Sister Smith”.
    Even if this were true only in Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, and Unitarian-Universalist churches, these are numbered in the 10,000s.
    By the way, Anglican churches in North America and elsewhere have ordained ministers and bishops, but in the Church of England, they do not. That has been a matter of great controversy in England and Wales.

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