English-usage authority Bryan A. Garner shook Language Twitter by suggesting that only philistines pronounced pubes as a single syllable.
More than a few of us responded with tweets of bewilderment and skepticism, likely confusing everyone around us as we muttered “PYOO-beez. PYOOBZ. PYOO-beez??” at our screens.
Garner claimed that the two-syllable pronunciation was all that his dictionaries offered, and a little digging proved him right. Not only did Merriam-Webster not have the /pyoobz/ pronunciation,
all listed /PYOO-beez/ as the preferred—sometimes only—pronunciation.
Most unsettling was dictionaries’ disregard for the existence of the singular pube.
It was enough to prompt a conspiracy theory:
So what was going on? Dictionaries are supposed to reflect predominant usage, yet this diverse community of language enthusiasts, most of them conscientious writers or editors, had never heard the two-syllable pubes. Were we all being gaslit?
As it turns out, all of these dictionary entries were for the medical or scientific usage of “pubes,” prounounced /PYOO-beez/, which can mean (with earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary):
- the mons pubis—the lower part of the abdomen at the front of the pelvis
The grinde or share is called Pubes, betwene the whyche are sette the priuye members, vnder the bothome of the bely. (John Hall, A most excellent and learned woorke of chirurgerie, called Chirurgia parua Lanfranci, translation of Lafranc, 1565)
- the plural form of pubis, referring to the bone making up the front and back sides of the pelvis
Between the Ischium and Pubes the Foramen. (William Cheselden, The Anatomy of the Humane Body, 1713)
- the plural form of pubis, referring to a pubic hair
In adolencie when Pubes was springing. (William Wager, Longer thou Liuest, 1569)
The OED acknowledges that “in later use,” that last definition is “difficulty to distinguish from the plural of PUBE, n.,” and the entry for pube does give the monosyllabic pronunciation. Its etymological note says, “non-technical context usually suggests that the monosyllabic, colloquial pronunciation is intended,” lending credence to this suggestion:
So in medical contexts, it’s /PYOO-beez/ and in a casual ones, it’s /pyoobz/. Case closed, right?
Well, not quite. Because we’re working mostly off of written records—and pubes sadly doesn’t seem to come up in a lot of historical rhyming poetry—we can’t be sure how the colloquial pubes was pronounced. For example, the first citation in the OED under pube is from 1968:
Tracing the line of feeling from nipple to pubes. (A. Ginsberg, Planet News, 1968)
But we don’t know for sure this wasn’t pronounced /PYOO-beez/.
Complicating matters is that, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, pubies and pubeys were also slang terms for pubic hair:
Pubies: Pubic hairs. (Baker et al., CUSS, 1967–8)
I’m still missing half of my pubies from the first day here. (J. Sayles, Union Dues, 1978)
There. On my soap. You fucken pig. Yer pubies. (J.M. Del Vecchio, 13th Valley, 1983)
What kind of dude shaves his pubeys? Hello! (J. Stahl ‘Pure’ in Love Without, 2007)
Are these terms evidence that people obviously pronounced pubes as a single syllable in colloquial use, necessitating these spellings to emphasize a different pronunciation? Or are they evidence that people said /PYOO-beez/ to refer to pubes—and pubes, pubies, and pubeys are variant spellings of the same word?
We can be pretty confident that /pyoobz/ arrived more recently than /PYOO-beez/, but when? And did we pluralize to pube to pubes, or did we get the singular pube from the plural?
A couple of linguists nerded out the issue on Twitter:
I think both theories are plausible, and the two phenomena might even have happened concurrently. Some speakers probably clipped pubic hair to pube, and because we usually talk about pubes in the plural, started saying /pyoobz/. Others may have seen pubes written and, via spelling pronunciation, assumed it was said /pyoobz/.
Searching for pube on its own would give us more definite answers to some of these questions because /pyoob/ is the only pronunciation offered for the singular in all dictionaries that list it. Ain’t nobody sayin’ /PYOO-bee/.
But there’s very little evidence in the written record of singular pube—and nothing that antedates the earliest confirmable usage of monosyllabic pubes.
As esoterically fascinating as this dive into pubes’s history is, what mattered to many of us was what was currently happening. The predominant colloquial pronunciation today is unquestionably /pyoobz/. We saw this pronunciation in Wayne’s World 2 (1993):
South Park (2001):
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004):
Shouldn’t the dictionaries reflect this widespread usage?
Fortunately, Merriam-Webster answered our call, writing:
A number of readers took to Twitter and created a polite and well-ordered pitchfork mob of descriptivist bent, taking pains to inform us that our pronunciation for pubes was in error…
We do not currently have the latter pubes in our dictionary (in our defense, the word does not frequently appear in published, edited text), but an entry is in progress. So a hearty round of congratulations to those of you who have raised this issue; you may henceforth say that you helped put pubes (rhymes with tubes) in the dictionary.
And this announcement led to much celebration: