Stupid Question ™
Aug. 9, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: Why do we call straightfaced comedians “deadpan”?
A: “Deadpan” is homegrown US slang for an expressionless face or look, especially one put on for effect. (By extension, it now also refers to any impassive, detached behavior or manner, not just to the face.)
The word apparently began as part of the jargon of Vaudeville, referring specifically to comedians who added to the humor of their jokes by delivering them with an apparently serious face. “Deadpan” was quickly adopted into general theatrical slang, and also picked up by the burgeoning movie industry.
The earliest known printed uses of the word are explanations of its meaning. The November 1927 “Vanity Fair” explained that both “poker-face” and “dead-pan” mean “a lifeless facial expression.” The March 11, 1928 New York Times defined “dead pan” as “playing a role with expressionless face.” (The verb form—“He deadpanned his lines”—didn’t appear until the 1940s.)
This was only in America, by the way. “Deadpan” didn’t enter British English until around 1944, via US soldiers in World War II.
“Deadpan” is a compound word in which “dead” obviously means “lifeless” or “unanimated.”
And “pan” is just a slightly earlier US slang term for “face” (first known from 1923). This word in turn probably ultimately derives from an older meaning of the word “pan”—“the skull,” a now-obsolete usage coined in the early 1300s. (It survives in the word “brainpan.”)
In addition, “pan” meaning “face” may have been influenced by the colloquialism “to shut one’s pan,” meaning to hold one’s tongue or keep quiet, which is known from the 1830s. This phrase apparently derives from yet another obsolete meaning of “pan”—the part of old flintlock guns that held the priming gunpowder necessary for firing the weapon (the same place we get the term “flash in the pan”).
No etymology would be complete without a red herring, and “deadpan” has one of the most bizarre I’ve ever come across.
Apparently, some literary type once deadpanned the explanation that “deadpan” was linked to “The Dead Pan,” a poem written in 1844 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The titular Pan was the pagan god of shepherds, nature and creation in general.
The poem was inspired by a strange supposed tradition that at the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion, voices could be heard shouting, “The Great Pan is dead!” and that thereafter the pagan oracles could no longer predict the future.
Needless to say, there’s no evidence this poem has anything to do with the Vaudeville expression of nearly 80 years later.