Sunday 2 December 2018

Punim, Ping, etc.

There used to be (maybe there still are?) a couple of regular features in the Reader's Digest called 'Towards More Picturesque Speech' and 'It Pays to Increase Your Word Power'. I don't know in quite what sense it 'pays' to widen your vocabulary (is there money in it?), but it's always a good idea, as it extends the number of things you can say and understand. And it's often good fun, as is 'picturesque speech', in moderation (somewhere well short of, say, Under Milk Wood).
  Joseph Epstein's essays (yes, it's that man again) demonstrate plenty of word power and of picturesque speech, and have added usefully to my vocabulary. For example, the other night (this is bedtime reading) I came across this sentence, a propos Robert Lowell's poetry and its close relation to the New Criticism of the mid-twentieth century:
'In his early poems, written as if for New Critical analysis, Lowell supplied enough ambiguity to plaster Mona Lisa's smile permanently on the punim of William Empson.'
 Punim? Goy that I am, I had no idea that this is a Yiddish (or Yinglish) word for the face, as in 'Look at that punim, as my grandma would say', or indeed 'shayna punim', a pretty face, a 'cutie patootie'. Good to know.
  Epstein has great fun with Lowell – as he does with Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Bishop, the four of them forming a rather unattractive literary daisy chain, decidedly wilted now (though the best of Elizabeth Bishop will surely live). Here's a little Epstein gag on the usefulness to a poet of being a Boston Brahmin:
'Would Lowell's poem "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow" give off quite the same ping if the poem were titled "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Manny Klein"? Think, maybe, not.'
 'Ping' is good too.


  1. I remember Epstein introducing me to the word "costive," which, in context, I liked as a synonym for "reticent" or "taciturn." Upon looking it up, I learned that the primary use was in describing literal, not metaphorical, constipation, and decided I probably wouldn't use it. I may well be full of it, but I'd rather not provide that image too readily.

  2. Yes – one to be handled with care, that one...