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April 10, 2020  |  Friday words #215  |  678 hit(s)

In a tweet last week, word person and naming expert Nancy Friedman introduced me to a new term: hustlebro. Nancy used it in reference to some dudes on Twitter who were exhorting (more like pre-shaming) people about what they weren't going to accomplish during this pandemic downtime:

Obviously, Nancy was using the term in a negative way, and I was pretty sure I got the idea, but I found it harder than I thought to articulate exactly how you'd define it. Poking around for other uses muddied the waters a little bit. If you search Twitter with the hashtag #hustlebro, you get a mixed bag. There are references to sports. There are general requests to hurry ("The only man I want on my doorstep is the delivery guy #hustlebro").[1] There are self-professed entrepreneurs, about which more in a minute.

It's complicated because both parts of the word—hustle and bro—have negative and positive connotations. Last year, Ben Zimmer tracked the history of hustle in his WSJ column (paywall), noting that it describes both scam artists and "diligent go-getters." And bro is used neutrally to refer to a companion ("hey, bro") but also negatively ("an alpha male idiot," thanks, Urban Dictionary).[2]

This duality (quadrality?) shows up in how people use hustlebro. To return to Nancy's example, a number of people (men?) proudly label themselves as hustlebros; they talk about hustling in an entrepreneurial sense, out there working hard ("grinding") to make the big bucks. (It can be a chore to read the Twitter bios of people who talk about being hustlebros.) Jason Zook claims he made up this term, which he intended negatively, in reference to "hustle porn" culture.

Update I overlooked a great writeup on the history of hustle on Nancy Friedman's blog. Plus she notes on Twitter that the hustlebro culture is about side hustles, i.e., ways beyond one's day job to earn.

Nancy manages a trick: while using hustlebro to refer to people who label themselves using that very word, she manages to invert it and make it negative. These guys have a whiff of the icky sense of hustler. They're bros in the sense of, you know, jerks. That's not their sense of hustlebro, but it seems to be how Nancy intends it. Perhaps I'll actually ask her about it.

For origins this week I have the word baleful. But first I had to make sure I knew what it meant; I've heard, like, a baleful look, but what is that, exactly? Sad? No, it's "foreboding; evil; pernicious."

If it's baleful, it must be full of bale, right? But my sense is that we don't toss around the word bale much these days to mean foreboding or evil or pernicious. The OED backs this up; the dictionary says that this use of bale fell into disuse by the 1600s.

But it had a pretty good run until then. It goes back to the Germanic ancestor of English (no French, for a change) and appears in Old English texts like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A cite from 1340 has "Þe [the] day of bale and of bitternes"; from about 1400 we have "Hire blesse turnde to Bale." Even though bale was on its way out in the days of Shakespeare, it hung around for use by the poetically inclined, so that a 19th-century translation of the Iliad included the line "Tidings of bale she brought."

I tried some searches to see whether bale is still sometimes used in this poetic, olde-tyme sense. But I didn't have much luck, because the more common uses of bale drowned it out, including things like bale of hay and (ha) Christopher Bale. But I did make the interesting discovery that bale (with a different etymology) is used as a collective term: a bale of turtles.[3]

[1] I'm going to assume an innocent interpretation of this.

[2] It's left as an exercise to the reader to determine whether Bernie Bro has only negative valence.

[3] Probably a made-up term, not one that arose organically in English. And as someone points out, turtles don't hang around in groups.

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