Pubic education

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,

 

 

 

 

Screen shot from Merriam-Webster entry for

 

but Oxford Living Dictionaries’ US page

Screen shot from Oxford Online Dictionary's entry for

and Dictionary.com

Screen shot from Dictionary.com's first entry for

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):

and several Judd Apatow projects, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. (Does Apatow have a pube fixation?)

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:

***

Thanks to Ben Zimmer and Todd Snider for their contributions to this post!

9 thoughts on “Pubic education

  1. Patrick Collins July 18, 2018 / 9:27 pm

    We can be sure that the use by Allen Ginsberg in 1968 was pjubis not the monosyllabic form as we have a recording of him reading the poem, though presumably from 1994 or just before.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5bgm7qT_N8 comes after 20 seconds.

    I had always imagined that the compilers for other dictionaries sneaked a look at the Oxford English Dictionary to see which words they were missing or getting wrong. Obviously not.

    I would also assume that an “English-usage authority” would have online access to the OED even if they did not have a physical copy. Very useful when you need to avoid looking like you are, to put it gently, not an authority when tweeting your pronouncements about people you consider inferior for not using the language “correctly”.

    Of course, we have no idea how pubes was pronounced at its first known written appearance in English in 1569 nor in old Latin, however much the Latinists speculate.

    Now, how do you pronounce the the plural of penis – penes? The OED has Brit. ˈpiːniːz, U.S. piˌniz. Seems right for my British pronunciation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patrick Collins July 18, 2018 / 10:32 pm

      I found a reading by Ginsberg of the same poem from 1965. Definitely was pjubis. Starts about 1 minute 19 seconds.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Iva Cheung July 18, 2018 / 11:04 pm

        Ah, thanks for posting this! So it looks as though the OED has to adjust its pube entry, too!

        Like

      • Ben Zimmer July 18, 2018 / 11:41 pm

        I’d wager that the OED’s next citation in the pube entry, from 1969, is a similar case. It’s from Kenneth Williams’ diary: “I came home at 11 o’c. I was lying in bed & felt the irritation in the pubes & thought it was one of those ants.” If Williams used the two-syllable pronunciation, then the earliest legit cite is from 1987, where there’s no ambiguity because pube is singular (from Kathy Lette’s Girls’ Night Out: “Once a stray pube gets a stranglehold on your vocal chord, you need a bloody vacuum cleaner to remove it!”).

        Like

      • Patrick Collins July 19, 2018 / 12:09 am

        Oh, that K. Williams. I might take that bet. Evidence from 1967:

        At 2:28 for the Sussex Whirdling Song:

        Liked by 1 person

      • Patrick Collins July 19, 2018 / 6:03 pm

        The Sussex Whirdling Song linked above was from the recording made on the 3rd of July 1967 at the EMI REcording Studios, later known as Abbey Road Studios. It was later released on EP and LP.

        When it was originally broadcast on Round the Horne (2nd series, Episode 12) on 29/05/1966 it was the young man’s splod that might become white with age. Presumably they thought they could be more outrageous on vinyl, even with Director General Hugh Greene defending their broadcast scripts.

        The piece starts at about 17:50.

        D’ye ken Jim Pubes went out intact on 14/05/1967 in Series 3, Episode 14 at about 21:00

        Like

  2. astraya August 4, 2018 / 11:29 am

    I once encountered ‘penes’ in a legal judgement, and just this week was investigating BrEng ae v AmEng e spellings and got a lot of Latin plurals of words ending in a, including vaginae.

    Like

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