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
  • Multi 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.

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


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!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • 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.