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You’ve Probably Been Pronouncing ‘Pubes’ Wrong This Whole Time

A world-famous grammarian has some news that will undoubtedly ruin your day

Remember in college when some dude would pass out drunk and the rest of his bros would shave fuzz off their junk area and glue it to his face? What did you call those little hairs? Say it out loud, right now: “Pubes.”

Well, not to ruin your weekend, but some experts say we’ve been pronouncing “pubes” wrong our entire lives.

Bryan A. Garner, a lawyer, professor and one of our foremost grammarians, includes this revelatory entry in his comprehensive Modern American Usage guide, brought to my attention by an eagle-eyed friend:

“Pyoo-beez.” Not “pubes,” as you’ve always said and will likely always hear in your head. Pubies. Like, a bunch of li’l pubies. Kind of cute, kind of disturbing. Almost as weird as realizing that the term refers to “the area surrounding a person’s genitals” as well as the carpet growing in that region. But that’s what this gold-standard reference text on the English language says. I’m shook.

What happened here? In hair as well as etymology, you begin at the root.

Pubes is a Latin word, used either as an adjective meaning “pubescent, arrived at the age of puberty, of ripe years, grown up,” or as a noun: “a sign of puberty” (very much including pubes themselves) or “young men of the age of puberty.” From the ancient Roman point of view, “pubes” was a two-syllable word, and that interpretation seems to have trickled down not just to Garner’s book but most authoritative lexicons: At Dictionary.com, clicking for audio on “pubes” gets you “pyoo-beez,” while Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries offer both English- and American-accented versions.

But as you and I are aware, nobody says it this way. Even if we wanted to blame the “proper” pronunciation on Latin, things don’t quite add up.

Dennis Preston, a regents professor of linguistics at Oklahoma State University who just debunked the viral theory that Meghan Markle is developing a British accent, relayed his critique of this explanation in an email to MEL:

“Well, if you are relying on Latin, where did the /j/ (i.e., ‘pyoobs’) come from?” he asked. “Why isn’t it just ‘poobs’?”

What he means is that whether you say “pyoobs” or “pyoo-beez,” you’re adding a “y” sound that wasn’t there in the Latin vowel, so it’s a corrupted form of the original word either way.

That “y” sound, he says, “is a common problem” in American English. “I once heard a radio announcer say that the ‘nyoon yooz’ was coming up. What’s wrong with ‘noon nooz’?”

As for whether the general public would ever capitulate to the academic “pyoo-beez,” probably not: “If we wait for Americans to react to a usage manual, we’re in for a long one. (And why should they. English isn’t Latin.)”

Another linguist, Bowling Green State University’s Sheri Wells-Jensen, agrees: “Why waste an ounce of energy on prescriptivist notions? Besides, nobody much ever says pubis, and fewer people ever need the plural.”

Fair enough! And Preston’s Latin-resistant response is appropriate for armchair grammarians who cling to the archaic rule against split infinitives — a construction quite impossible in Latin but, according to Bryan A. Garner himself, perfectly fine in English, under the right circumstances.

https://twitter.com/MilesKlee/status/1015302080024604673

Garner, to his credit, owned me with rhyme and sourcing when I asked him about the rationale and/or history of “pyoo-beez,” affirming that despite the overwhelming preference for “pyoobs” among ordinary Americans today, it’s still a fairly recent innovation. His answer illuminates the chasm dividing “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” philosophies of language — the difference between defining “correct” usage and observing how people actually talk.

Nevertheless, in the case of “pubes,” it would seem the battle is over and an organic slang standard is firmly entrenched in American speech.

Will Garner and the dictionaries ever come around, as some did with the still-controversial figurative use of “literally”? We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, we’re stuck with an itchy disagreement.