Promposal: A staged invitation to a school dance. A portmanteau of prom and proposal.
Promposal isn’t new on the American scene—Urban Dictionary’s earliest citation is dated January 22, 2006—but it’s become a more elaborate, more breathlessly reported phenomenon each year. During the week of April 20, 2015, for example, U.S. news outlets reported that Ibrahim Ahmad, a high school senior in La Center, Washington, was suspended for strapping a fake bomb to his waist while asking his date to the prom. (“The girl said yes. The principal said no,” was the lede on NBCNews.com.) About a week later, USA Today reported that teens are spending one-third of their prom budgets—an average of $324—just on the promposal. Over-the-top efforts have involved 1,500 helium balloons; a breakdancing flash mob; a re-creation of an Old Spice ad; and an elaborate light display. (More here.) Creating a video of the promposal is de rigueur; teens who feel creatively challenged can get inspiration (or “inspo”) from @ThePromposal, a Twitter account. Promposals “exploded on the scene” in Canada in 2011, according to a May 2011 story in the Globe and Mail, which noted that “there are even pre-promposals, with hopefuls posting popular promposal videos, with a wish.” (For the dark side of promposals, see Seventeen magazine’s “Awecomely Hilarious Promposal Fails.”)
The promposal-palooza may be influenced by elaborate (and expensive) marriage proposals, which have been proliferating at least since the advent of YouTube in 2005. (“Crazy Marriage Proposal--Guy Falls Off Building,” posted in July 2011, has more than 10 million views to date.)
Prom—“a ball or formal dance at a school or college, typically held for the members of a single (typically senior) class near the end of the school year,” according to the OED—emerged in the late 19th century as a shortened form of promenade, which since the mid-16th century had meant “a leisurely walk.” Promenades, usually shortened to Proms, was adopted in early-19th-century Britain to refer to “promenade concerts,” events at which audience members could sit, stand, or walk around. But dancing prom has always been American. The OED’s earliest citation, dated December 5, 1879, is from the Yale Courant, and shows prom as an abbreviation (“the Junior Prom. Com.”). In 1890, the Harvard Crimson signaled the word’s relative novelty by placing it between quotation marks: “T.L. McClung is chairman of the ‘Prom’ committee at Yale.” For decades, prom took a definite article: the senior prom, an invitation to the prom. Then, around 2000 or possibly earlier, the article vanished. “And, yeah, I needed a date for senior prom,” the author Robert B. Parker had a character say in his 2001 crime novel Death in Paradise.*
Stephen Colbert spoofed the promposal trend on his May 7, 2013, show. He defined the word as “a combo of the word pro and mposal,” and then brought on a guest—former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky—to raise the stakes.