It must be school dance season, because two people have written to me about (AmE) proms. This is usually translated into BrE as school dance, but a prom is a specific kind of school dance--a formal dance (that is, the clothes are typically formal, not the dancing) that happens in high school in either the senior year (i.e. the final year) or the junior year (i.e. the penultimate year). These may be called senior prom and junior prom, respectively. (For discussion of all those school terms, please see back here.) Proms involve various traditions, such as the election of a prom king and queen, drinking too much and engaging in irresponsible sexual activity. Not that I'd know. I wasn't invited to my prom. And the bitterness has almost worn off.

The term comes from promenade (perhaps because the dancers promenade in their nice clothes), and if you look it up in the OED, it says:
1. U.S. = PROMENADE n. 2c.
...leading you to the definition under promenade, which is kind of silly, as NO ONE calls it a promenade (dance), and the last AmE quotation they have for promenade in this meaning is from 1933. Rather than saying that prom is a shortening of promenade in this case, I think we should say that prom is historically related to promenade--by abbreviation, sure, but the abbreviation happened long ago and was forgotten about.

Paul wrote a while ago to point out that this meaning of prom seems to have made it into BrE, as is evident in this BBC News story. Prom is more usually found in the plural in BrE, as (the) Proms, which the OED records as:
2. = promenade concert (s.v. PROMENADE n. 4b); the Proms, the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, now given annually at the Royal Albert Hall, London (also in sing.).
Follow that cross-reference and you get to:
promenade concert, a concert at which the audience walk about instead of being seated or at which a proportion of the audience stands.
The Proms are all over the place now, not just in the Royal Albert Hall. To get a taste of the scope and history of the Proms, see the BBC Proms website.

The other e-mail I got about proms was from new reader Julie, following other discussions of the on the blog. She says:
A recent "the" usage caught my ear. In the late 60s outside Philadelphia, I went to the prom. (Actually, I didn't, but if I had, I would have said "the"...definitely.) My 16-year-old daughter & her friends are going (really!) to prom. No "the", ever. I have no idea if this represents a temporal change or regional difference.
I've taken an instant liking to Julie, since she was promless (oh, let's be positive--prom-free!) in high school too, so we'll ignore the fact that this isn't really a BrE/AmE query. Prom versus the prom seem to be in free variation in many young people's (American) English, judging from the places Google took me--the same person within a single web discussion would call it both, though with a stronger tendency (it seemed to me) to capitali{s/z}e Prom when it had no the. It's my impression that this is a generational difference, not a regional one (and certainly not an AmE/BrE one, since they're only starting to get the hang of [orig. AmE] calling dances proms here). There's a discussion with a vote on the subject over here [link now dead], but I suspect that many of the voters in that poll are not of prom-going age. On this site, there's someone who seems to think that the prom/the prom variation is a rural/urban thing. In the discussion here, someone thinks it's regional--but no one's identified the region. There was quite a bit of discussion of this last year on the American Dialect Society list (you can search the archives here), but I couldn't find any reference there to a particular regional origin.

An ex-sweetheart used to say when leaving the house, I'm off like a prom dress! I say this in the UK every once in a while, and only I chuckle. But that's a feeling I'm used to. Probably indicative of why I didn't get to go to (the) prom.


  1. Maybe the lack of prom is contributing to my continuing to comment on this but.... Interesting about free variation. It certainly may be a free alternation of 'the' and no 'the' now, but my initial reaction to my daughter's question: "Mom, can I go to prom?" was that it was completely ungrammatical. Never mind that she was going with an older (i.e. senior) boy on her first date ever. It was ungrammatical! So..maybe a shift?

  2. In my experience the usual BrE translation of prom has been ball. My sixth form college had three per year: freshers', Christmas and summer. They involved formal dress, dancing and drinking (the bar situation was complicated because most attendees were underage but some were 18) but that was the extent of the ritual. There was no king/queen popularity contest and no excruciatingly cruel-for-teenagers requirement to find a date.

    I think Sussex University's dances are called balls too, or have they changed? I haven't been paying attention. I've never encountered them being called proms here but then I am not of prom-going age.

  3. AT my college (NZ eqv. to US High School) we had Balls. (Smirk)

    On private- or in-jokes like “I'm off like a prom dress”:
    I had a workmate who used to announce "I'm gonna make like a bald man" as he left the building. He was trying to tell us he "was outta hair (here)”.

    Another workmate exclaimed “mummy’s undies” when an activity went off well: “that went off like mummy’s undies (underpants)” was the fuller version...

  4. I agree that the closest NZ equivalent to a prom is a school ball. We had school dances as well, but they were less of a big deal than the ball, and there were several per year.

    I can't recall now if we had a ball only in the 7th form (now called, year 13 in NZ, equivalent to senior year in the US), or whether there was a 6th form ball as well.

    Although it is the closest equivalent to the prom, no one I knew took the ball as seriously as it is my impression that the typical US high school student takes the prom. It was also possible to go without a date, when apparently it isn't for the prom; I remember some controversy about the fact that a single ticket cost more than half a couple's ticket. I assume there must have been single boys from the local boys' school there also.

  5. The year I graduated from high school in Sydney (this was last year), we had a "formal". Year 10s get one too. (We go up to year 12 here.)

    When I was in Hong Kong, at the school that I went to they officially called it a "dinner dance" (it was a British school), although most of the students called it the "prom" amongst themselves (American influence).

    They had one for year 11s and one for year 13s (which is roughly equivalent with year 10 and 12 in Sydney because it's the final and the third-from-final years).

  6. In Ireland we have "the debs" at the end of secondary school, which would be broad equivelent of the American prom. I guess the origin is "debutant(e)". It seems to have fewer associated traditions, but usually does involve expensive dresses and too much booze.

    A ball is typically something run by a club/society in a university. The "Trinity Ball" is a locally well known example, which is a large party held on the TCD campus before the summer exams.

  7. Yeah, here in Adelaide, we call them formals as well. My high school only had a formal in year 12 but I've heard of some schools having formals in year 10 or 11 as well.

  8. If it's shifting from "the prom" to just "prom" it must have happened when I was prom age (12 years ago), as both sound perfectly correct to me.

    For the record, I'm American and grew up in a major urban centre on the west coast.

    By the way, love this blog!

  9. We said "the prom" in the 90s in Canada. I didn't go either. Some people went alone (with their friends) but I didn't want to go so I didn't. I've never regretted it. For me high school was all about pressure to conform, to be someone I'm not.

  10. Until, say ten years ago, if somebody had referred to “a prom”, I would have assumed that they meant a concert at The Royal Albert Hall during the Promenade season. In my twenties I used to stand in the Arena and Friday nights were usually Beethoven nights, when Sir Malcolm Sergeant (“Flash Harry”) would conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra:since those days my tastes have expanded considerably. I believe that the Proms are probably the most fantastic experience in the classical musical world, where, as a member of the audience, you feel a part. My wife and I still intend to go to at least one concert each season, but the journey to Kensington gets more daunting each year and standing can become exhausting- you can get a seat in the circle or gallery, but it does not have the same atmosphere as the Arena.

  11. My experiences in North Carolina, USA:

    High schools have three dances per year. Homecoming in the October - not at all formal, not well attended. Winterfest in February - Girl-ask-guy (sometimes called a Sadie Hawkins dance), more formal (suits and dresses, but no tuxedos) well attended. Prom in May - Juniors and Seniors (other dances are whole school, upperclassmen could invite underclassmen), very formal (tuxedos and fancy dresses), most of the class will be there.

    It wasn't unusual to go alone, but was definately the exception. Rented Limos were common. "Prom" and "The Prom" were both frequently heard. I would say "Prom" was a little more common.

    I went to a total of seven in my career, including some at other schools and two after I graduated and my sweetie was still in school.

  12. The "the" biz: I can remember how odd it seemed the first time I heard journalists covering the Trades Union Congress referring to "Congress" rather than The Congress. Still, no relation between Prom and congress, eh?

  13. Most schools in England now have proms in the final year of that particular school. refered to as either prom or the prom. I attend a 6th form(yr 12 &13 part of the school) and my prom is on Friday. It's prety much the same as an american one except theres no prom king or queen. Another diference is (if the films are right? not the most reliable source)most people don't bring a date, its not a big issue.

    My old school only went up to yr11(15-16) so i had a prom at the end of year 11. my friends at various different colleges(not in the Ame sense. A school that you can go to if your school only goes up to yr 11) have theirs soon, but its not a big deal and they might not go.

    This is the only dance that there will be throughout years 7-11/7-13/12-13. American schools seem like their alot more fun, in this senses

  14. I have never been the dancing or prom-going type, and I don't even recall what the things might be called in Danish, but my intuition based on too many US sitcoms &c growing up is "the prom".

    But reading this I checked my flist, since an acquaintance has just been to hers. All four separate occurrences are "prom" sans "the". For the demographic survey: female, 18, North Carolina (I think).

    1. I would say the Danish word is "Gallafest" - was when I was at school and still is now. High schools (gymnasier) will have one annually for the whole school, and they'll involve formal dresses and dancing les lanciers.

  15. I went to prom ('02) because all my friends did. Can't say I had a life altering experience there (or afterward). I imagine I would have had more fun staying home or going to the movies.

    I don't usually "the" in front of prom.

    And I must say... I just love this blog. I check it every other day. I find your commentary to be informative, witty, and, at times, hysterical.

  16. The Wikipedia article on (dance) proms has a long list of equivalents in other countries. If you're interested, you can Google it, because I'm too lazy to put in the link!

    Thanks for the kind words from new readers (or, at least, new commenters)!

  17. At my high school, in the far northwest of the US 30 years ago, the prom definitely carried the article. I didn't go either; actually speaking to a girl was enough to give me the vapors back then; I certainly didn't have the, uh, balls to ask one to a dance.

    Our girl-asks-guy dance was called a Tolo, which Wikipedia claims is from Chinook Jargon, a regional trade pidgin, though I'm skeptical. I never went to one of those either. Nerd.

  18. Hodge: no no no no no. (I carefully counted the no's to correspond with my actual reaction.) Hodge's classification of dances:

    "High schools have three dances per year. Homecoming in the October - not at all formal, not well attended. Winterfest in February - Girl-ask-guy (sometimes called a Sadie Hawkins dance), more formal (suits and dresses, but no tuxedos) well attended. Prom in May - Juniors and Seniors (other dances are whole school, upperclassmen could invite underclassmen), very formal (tuxedos and fancy dresses), most of the class will be there."

    I don't know when Hodge went to school, but in the North, Homecoming is a big dance as well. Maybe not quite as big as prom, but still very fancy. The dresses were less formal (not ballgowns), but more than church-formal. The deal with Homecoming is that you don't have to bring a date (but you're a loser if you don't), and all students can go if they buy the tickets. Guys wear suits, not tuxes, but they're usually very nice suits, sometimes with vests even. Some people get limos in big groups, and there's often afterparty activities, like with prom.

    My experience is that all schools have Homecoming (which is a whole weeklong event with a big game of some kind- football or soccer- and possibly an Invitational tournament), along with alumni functions and some kind of alumni hoopla and community thing alongside the big Saturday game. And then the formal dance. However, I went to private school in a region with a HUGE tradition of private schools of all types (and budgets- mine was pretty cheap) because the public schools were/are so horrible. For private schools, alumni are really important (for fundraising) and Homecoming has to be used for that context and for "school spirit" things for the actual student body. (Pep rallies, which I had to organize as a reluctant cheerleader, for example- small schools have mandatory athletic participation requirements.)

    Not all schools have a winter/Christmas dance (I went to one with my prom date as a formals trade), but most have a Sadie Hawkins/sock hop at some point during the year. The prom and Homecoming are the fancy dances that make all girls nervous about getting invites though. (I graduated in 2000.)

    And I use both with and negative article. But I'm trying to figure out when I use which, and I think it might be that where I would say "my prom" I don't use the "the" and where it's more general I would use it.

  19. I never went to dances in high school, but I aslo recall Homecoming being a big deal - there was even an assembly in which a homecoming king and queen were selected, with the runners-up being the homecoming court. Perhaps the south doesn't consider it as big a deal as the north.

  20. Two cents - in rural Maine in the 90s it was definitely the prom. I think it still is. That is all. I went because I helped plan it, but didn't have that much fun.

  21. Yeah, "the prom" and "prom" vary freely in my dialect--southern Californian. I think there may be a pragmatic distinction. When I'm talking about the specific prom that I went to, I'd probably use "the prom", but when I'm saying something hypothetical about proms, I'd use "prom." I don't have data, though, so I may well just be drawing a distinction where there isn't one.

  22. I am from very rural central NY originally. I went to the prom in 2002 and 2003. There is no way I would leave "the" off of it!
    Now I am wondering about this far too much :D
    I also am trying to think if other students around me would have said "the," because I tended to speak somewhat unlike them.
    Am I already old enough that kids these days have mangled the grammar? eek!

  23. My experience in the UK is that my (posh private) school had a sixth form ball, the 'Commem Ball' which was seriously expensive and, no, I didn't go. There was a proper sit-down dinner, and different kinds of live music/DJ'ing and lots and lots of alcohol....

    I think, though I may be wrong about this, that the idea of a formal event with posh party frocks (if not quite ballgowns) and boys in DJ's, etc is relatively new in most state schools. And I would guess that they've started having them because they've seen American proms on TV and film, rather than because they've looked at stuffy old private schools and wanted to be like them. So it makes sense that they'd take the name of prom, rather than ball.

  24. University ones are definitely Balls, rather than proms, and I'm not surprised to discover that Ball is what posh private schools call them, and possibly public schools too.

    I tend to expect at least some formal (ballroom) dancing at a Ball, though that was fading when I was at Uni in the nineties - though the influence of Strictly may be bringing it back according to rumour - in particular, Strictly is showing people that they can foxtrot or waltz to more modern music, which makes it much more accessible.

    We should also mention the (1980s) tradition of the school disco. They would be on school premises, would usually involve a teacher as DJ, or a band comprised of pupils. They might be directly after school, in uniform, or a bit later so people could get changed. People always sneaked booze in, or slipped out to the car park where some was stashed.

    School discos would be run every summer after exams (ie late June), and often other times of the year - Hallowe'en was a popular one (and that was an era when it still had its apostrophe), so was Valentine's.

    Usually they would be for one year, so you'd have a fifth-form disco, and a fourth-form disco and a third-form disco. You might have first and second form discos, but their parents might not let them out that late, especially on a dark night (so maybe only in June and not October).

    ... and there is now a rather creepy (at least to me) club night called School Disco where people in their twenties and thirties dress up in fake school uniforms (well, a version of school uniform, but with MOAR FLESH) and they play eighties music.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)