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

By Philologos

Published December 16, 2012, issue of December 21, 2012.
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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.


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