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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In a variety of spellings (shayne, shana, shaneh), sheyne punim has been around in the American media for a while, sometimes italicized and sometimes not. What’s happened recently, however, is that “punim” has become decoupled from this combination and begun to occur in American English by itself. Usually, you’ll find it in a breezily written passage in which it’s meant to add to the with-it ambience. Here, for instance, is Steven Weber, writing in The Huffington Post in 2009:

“Between the menacing acronym TARP and the gag-inducing Nadya Suleman, AKA Octopussy, the latest credulity-straining events to occupy both ends of the cultural spectrum, we are still living in an Ian Fleming carny world and the always trusty media, ready to amass an unthinking crowd of agreeable consumers, barfs the data like a barker all over our passive punims.”

And here’s fashion writer Marshall Heyman in The Wall Street Journal in 2011:

“Sometime between midnight and one in the morning at the V Man party on Tuesday at the new Mondrian in SoHo, $5,000 in cash dropped from the ceiling as Kanye West (the magazine’s current cover star) and Stephen Gan (the magazine’s creative director) looked on. The $5,000 was mixed in with another $5,000 in fake bills featuring Mr. West’s punim.”

What’s curious about this is that it hasn’t involved imitation. Most Yinglish words that have entered general American speech — schlep, maven, chutzpah, etc. — have done so by a process of non-Jewish speakers picking up the word from Jewish speakers and circulating it among their non-Jewish acquaintances. Yet “punim” in the language of writers like Weber and Heyman has nothing to do with Judeo-English usage. American Jews never inserted “punim” into their speech in this way. We seem to be witnessing a purely written phenomenon in which “punim” is being used for literary effect. Almost always, spoken slang precedes written slang. It will be interesting to see whether in this case the process is reversed and “punim” eventually takes on a spoken existence.

Meanwhile, proceed with caution. The New York Times notwithstanding, “punim,” I’m told, still hasn’t been recognized as a valid Scrabble word.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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