The Grammarphobia Blog

Deadpan, part 2

Q: I’m a theater person who, incidentally, has gotten “panned” quite a few times, but I never gave the term much thought till I saw your recent posting about “deadpan.” Could there be a connection?

A: No, I don’t think there’s a connection between a “deadpan” expression and the verb “pan” in the sense of to criticize severely.

In fact, I haven’t been able to find a solid explanation of why the verb “pan” took on its critical meaning, though I did come across one theory and I have another of my own.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for “pan” as a verb is from the late 15th century, when it meant to fit or put up horizontal beams to support joists in a timber-framed house.

Back then, such a beam was referred to as a “pan” (from panna, post-classical Latin for squared timber).

Although this meaning is now considered obsolete, the idea of fitting beams in place led in the 16th century to several positive figurative senses of the verb “pan”: to fit, agree, suit, or show an aptitude for something.

In the 19th century, the use of pans (that is, containers) to separate gold from gravel gave us the positive verbal phrase “pan out,” meaning to get good results or turn out well.

The first citation in the OED for the verb “pan” used in its negative sense is from Kenneth McGaffey’s 1908 novel The Sorrows of a Showgirl: “There is nothing I hate worse than to hear one lady pan another behind her back.”

The OED also has a few references to the verb “pan” used in the sense of to hit, punch, or knock sense into someone. The first citation is from a 1942 book of theatrical slang.

So how did we get the severely critical sense of the word that you ask about?

Evan Morris, on his Word Detective website, speculates that the critical sense may “may well be connected to the use of ‘pan’ meaning ‘to hit or strike’ (presumably originally literally with a pan), which has been found in print as of the 1940s but probably was in spoken use long before then.”

Well, perhaps, but I’m skeptical. Could a usage that first appeared in print in 1942 really beget one that made its debut in 1908?

I’m just speculating here too, but maybe this critical sense has something to do with the frequent use of “pan out” in negative statements. I got 16 million hits on Google for “didn’t pan out” and only 283,000 for “panned out.”

Sorry I can’t give you a more definitive answer.

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