I was think of posting a picture of my ugly pan here instead of the gravatar, when I started to wonder, why is it my ugly pan? The slang term pan meaning face occurs chiefly in phrases such as ugly pan and smack in the pan, suggesting that is not very complimentary.

Green's Dictionary of Slang has several different meanings including the female pudenda, the mouth, the head and the anus but suggests no etymology.

Does anyone have any idea where the term came from?

  • 2
    It's interesting that you mention a meaning including the head. In the Brythonic Celtic languages (Breton, Cornish and Welsh), the word "pen" means head. Cornish and Welsh developed into separate languages from a common, Brythonic language that was spoken across Britain, before the arrival of English. Maybe this was the origin of pan?
    – Tristan
    Feb 8, 2013 at 0:31
  • @Tristan, you may well be on to something there. Feb 8, 2013 at 6:48

2 Answers 2


The book American Slang gives the following entry for pan:

  1. The face. MUG. Too great for them to keep their pans shut. (1923+)

This seems to be when pan first entered American slang. From there, it went on to form words like deadpan (recorded in 1927). Only one site gave a hint to the actual origins, though. In this question about the origins of "deadpan", it is written that:

The key to "deadpan" is the use of "pan" as theatrical slang for "the face" (reflecting the use of "pan" to mean "skull," found as early as 1330).

Going off of this, there seems to be some support. The Word Origins page for skull says:

The Old English word for ‘skull’ was hēafodpanne, literally ‘head-pan’. It has never been firmly established where its Middle English replacement skull came from, but is seems more than likely that it was borrowed from a Scandinavian language (Swedish and Norwegian have skalle ‘skull’).

So the old word for skull gave pan, which was adopted to mean face. From there, pan entered American slang in the early 1920s.

  • 1
    It could be added to this that in the Scandinavian languages, (Icelandic+Faeroese+Swedish/Norwegian/Danish) panna/panne/pande is the normal word for ‘forehead’. This is quite obviously the same word as OE (hēafod)panne, and also as any other kind of pan—‘forehead’ and ‘frying pan’ are cognate homonyms in the Scandinavian languages (though dictionaries normally list them as seperate lemmata). Nov 26, 2013 at 0:07

I suspect it's from the Hebrew פּנים, transliterated as "panim:" — oddly, a plural —, which means "face". (If there were a singular, it would be transliterated as pan.)

  • Do you think it is from Yiddish (the more likely source of things originally Hebrew)?
    – Mitch
    Feb 7, 2013 at 18:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.