Deep Panning

On Language

By Philologos

Published February 17, 2010, issue of February 26, 2010.
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Dick Luxner sent me an e-mail in which he inquires whether I know anyone who can read 16th-century Catalan (I don’t), and ended with the P.S.: “Can you confirm my thought that the ‘pan’ in the phrase I remember from my childhood, ‘Wipe that smile off your pan,’ comes from the Yiddish word for face, ponim? And why would a singular noun have a plural ending?”

The Hebrew word panim (stressed on its second syllable), from which comes Yiddish ponim or punim (stressed on its first syllable), not only has the masculine plural ending –im, but is also treated like a plural in all respects — although one that in modern Hebrew is, curiously, grammatically feminine. Thus, one says panim yafot, a beautiful face, rather than panim yafim or (as one would say if the word were grammatically singular) panim yafah; and “her face fell” is paneha naflu, with the verb nafal in the plural, too. In Yiddish, on the other hand, ponim is singular. In Yiddish dialects that have a neuter gender, ponim is neuter and takes the definite article dos, and in those that do not, it is masculine and takes der.

Hebrew has a small number of nouns like panim that exist only in the plural even though they refer to something in the singular, but so do many other languages. There is even a Latin term for this phenomenon — that is, pluralia tantum or “plurals only.” English has quite a few pluralia tantum, some of the more common examples being “pants,” “cattle,” “scissors,” “news,” “mumps,” “measles,” “pliers” and “binoculars.” You cannot come down with “the mump” or “the measle,” even though doing so is logically no different from coming down with the flu, and you come down with “them,” not with “it,” despite having contracted only a single case of the disease.

Is there any identifiable reason that panim has always been plural in Hebrew, going back to the days of the Bible? Possibly, the clue lies in the short list of English pluralia tantum that I just gave. You’ll notice that several of the words on it — pants, pliers, scissors, binoculars — denote things that are composed of symmetrical halves, and this is the case with a face, too. Although we do not speak of “a scissor” in English, we instinctively grasp that there is such a thing and that “a scissors” has two of it, and by the same token, although one does not speak of a pan in classical Hebrew (in modern Hebrew, the word has the meaning of a “facet” or “aspect”), the Hebrew speaker intuits that every face has two pans, each with one eye, one cheek, one nostril, one jaw, and half a forehead and mouth.

As for English “pan” in the sense of a face, I must confess that, as someone born and raised in a Jewish environment in New York City in the 1940s and ’50s, I don’t remember ever hearing the word used that way. In my world, “pan” referred only to a cooking utensil, and Mr. Luxner’s example of “Wipe that smile off your pan” rang no bell with me, although on second thought, it did occur to me that this might be the “pan” in “deadpan,” a word I had never reflected on before. A bit of research turned up the following:

• None of the half-dozen comprehensive English dictionaries in my possession list “face” as a colloquial meaning of “pan.”

• My 1960 Wentworth and Flexner Dictionary of American Slang does list such a meaning, and cites the historical Dictionary of American English as tracing it all the way back to 1799. The earliest recorded use that Wentworth and Flexner were able to find of “pan” in the sense of “face,” however, is from a poem written in 1928, and I have not been able to check the DAE for verification.

• The Internet site “The Phrase Finder” (www.phrases.org.uk/index.html) gives a 1928 New York Times article about the comic Buster Keaton as the earliest known source for “deadpan,” and adds: “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.)”

My conclusion? In all probability, Yiddish ponim had nothing to do with “pan” qua face. In the first place, “pan” apparently had this meaning long before Yiddish-speaking immigrants arrived in America. Second, even if it didn’t, ponim was never, to the best of my knowledge, one of the many Yiddish words that made their way into the speech of American-born children of Jewish immigrants, from which it could have spread to more general usage. And third, even if ponim (or punim) had been used by them, it would almost certainly have been shortened to “pon” or “pun” rather than “pan.” Phonetically, ponim-to-pan is unlikely.

This still leaves me wanting to know whether any of you besides Mr. Luxner remembers hearing “pan” in the sense of “face” when you were young. Don’t be shy about letting me know if you do.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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