The Sheynest Punim of Them All

How A Word Made Its Way Into The Lexicon

Beautiful Faces: Andy Warhol’s many punims of Marilyn Monroe
Getty Images
Beautiful Faces: Andy Warhol’s many punims of Marilyn Monroe

By Philologos

Published December 16, 2012, issue of December 21, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

When does a word borrowed from another language officially become a member in good standing of American English? Some might say that this happens only when it is included in the dictionaries. Yet new dictionaries are not published every day, and even when they come out, they often overlook words that have been regarded for years by many English speakers as part of their vocabulary. A better test might be when a borrowed word first appears in a reputable publication without italics, quotation marks or parenthetical explanations — and what more respectable publication could there be than our august New York Times?

Welcome to the language then, punim! That’s p-u-n-i-m, pronounced PU-nim, with the “u” like the vowel in “foot,” as in a passage like:

“The digital photography revolution roughly coincided with the births of my two daughters…. For a while I kept up with the sorting, naming, uploading and ordering (and editing) of prints…. It was some time in 2009 that I nearly stopped taking pictures of them, since the very thought of new images of their grinning punims became synonymous in my mind with hard labor.”

That’s from a December 1 Times op-ed titled “Many More Images, Much Less Meaning,” by author Lucinda Rosenfeld. No one at the Times, it would seem, raised an eyebrow over “punim,” or thought it called for special treatment or explanation, much less for being replaced by a more understandable slang word like “mug” or “puss.” It passed the Times’ editorial desk, one might say, with flying colors. Although its Yiddish plural is penimer, Ms. Rosenfeld quite sensibly opts for “punims,” since she is, after all, writing English.

It’s a good Yiddish word, of course, even if some of us might prefer “ponim,” especially if we hail from Litvish — that is, from Northeastern Yiddish-speaking — stock. It comes from Hebrew panim (pah-NEEM), “face,” which remains panim in the plural, since it is already a pluralized noun in the singular, presumably because the face has two symmetrical halves.

To Yinglish speakers, “punim” (which is the way I’ll spell it, despite its going against my Litvish grain) is hardly a new word, though it was never one used by them freely. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an American Jew say anything like, “Go wash your punim,” or, “I don’t want to see your punim again.” Indeed, “punim” in Judeo-English is almost entirely restricted to the phrase “[a] sheyne punim” — literally, a pretty or beautiful face. Most often this occurs as an expression of endearment, especially with children. “Sheyne punim!” a mother will say to her 2-month-old, in the sense of “You little darling, you!” “Sheyne punim!” you coo to the little creature in your neighbor’s baby carriage, which doesn’t mean you really think it’s all that beautiful.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.