by Mark Gwynn
As part of the celebrations for the centenary of Canberra the Australian National Dictionary Centre will showcase a number of ‘Canberra words’ this year. In this blog we explore the word pube and attitudes towards the public servant in the nation’s capital.
Pube is a colloquial term in Canberra for a public servant—a member of the Australian Public Service (APS), the permanent professional branches of government administration, usually known as the civil service in the UK. The original meaning of pube, ‘a pubic hair’, dates from at least the 1950s. The Australian use transfers the abbreviation pube to the best-known occupation in Canberra, the public servant. The first written evidence occurs in the 1980s:
For decades, population growth was forced along by the compulsory transfer of tens of thousands of public servants, or ‘pubes‘ as the local nickname goes. (Australian Financial Review, 17 Feb. 1989)
The transferred use of pube is based on word play—the similarity of the words pubic and public. It may be seen as a crude dig at public servants and their sheer weight of numbers in the local population, but it is possible that its origin lies in a simple typing error: public servant to pubic servant is just a slip on the keyboard. It is an error still easily found in online Australian newpapers today, and as a columnist below notes, the joke is irresistible: ‘Typos evoke comical images — just ask a pubic servant’ (Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, 5 Jan. 2013). From pubic servant to pube is a short step.
Pube is a derogatory term, reflecting the ambivalent attitude towards public servants within Canberra. Many locals are employed by the APS, but the sheer size of the public service in the city has also created tensions between the public and private sectors over the years. Pube is often encountered on the Internet in the context of Canberra-bashing, ‘the act of criticising the Federal Government and its bureaucracy’. Comments on online blogs and forums often highlight the perquisites of public servants as this one demonstrates:
Having worked in both the public and private sector in Canberra there is some truth to the fact that some Pubes rort the system, they are indoctrined public servants who know every trick of how to do just enough to retain their jobs, advancement isn’t a problem for them because they are happy where they sit and only wait for the next round of vol redundancies if they have enough time up to make it worth while. (ABC Drum Opinion, 4 May 2012)
Canberrans can also use the word in a less disparaging way. The following comment occurs on a webpage countering criticisms of Canberra:
Only about one in four Canberrans are ‘pubes’ as we affectionately call them. Besides, what’s wrong with them anyway? Some of them seem quite normal as long as they’re not trying to exercise their public sector perceived hierarchy status outside of their work environment. (<http://www.mocs.com.au/pages/canberra-bashing.php> accessed Jan. 2013)
Given the back-handed compliment, the claim that it is an affectionate term must be taken with a grain of salt.
The contribution of the APS to the nation’s capital is well recognised by many Canberrans, and in this centenary year many public servants* will celebrate their role (past and present) in helping to create Australia’s capital city. Perhaps some may even enjoy the self-mockery of pube.
*The convict origin of the term public servant will be the subject of a later blog.