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Shut your pan, don't panic, and it will pan out

Erle Stanley Gardner, who churned out one Perry Mason mystery after another from the 1930s until his death in 1970, brightened the hearts of Mason fans in 1942 with The Case of the Drowning Duck. It's hard to read the book in 2011 without being pulled out of the story by word-play curiosities.

For instance, although the word "detergent" had been around since the 1600s in the sense of something that cleans – from the Latin de (away) and tergere (to wipe) – the concept of the detergent as a synthetic laundry cleanser was relatively new in the 1940s. "What's a detergent?" Mason asks at one point. If Perry Mason didn't know, heaven help the readers.

But the point at which I had to put the book aside and dig into my files arrived when Mason was firing tough questions at a woman on a train. She tried to appear nonchalant, but he saw through her act. She asked him how he knew she was bluffing. "By that look of stiff surprise, by that dead pan, and the studied calmness of your reply," he responded.

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A dead pan is an impassive face. The expression isn't found in print until 1928 (with the adjective "deadpan" close on its heels in 1929), but pan had been American slang for the face since at least 1920. In a 1961 parody of the country song Please Help Me, I'm Falling, the U.S. comedy duo Homer and Jethro memorably sang: "Go to Peter Pan's beauty shop/ Before your pan peters out."

Why a pan? Word expert Eric Partridge speculated that it "derives from seeing one's face mirrored in the bottom of a well-burnished frying pan belonging to a gold miner or, maybe, a housewife."

The reference to gold miner was a nod to the earlier sense of pan as the sifting of gravel in a pan to find gold. Panning out gravel was a phrase in common use by 1852, and the figurative notion of a scheme panning out well or badly entered the language by the late 1860s. If a play didn't pan out, the critics would pan it.

A simpler explanation for the pan as face is that, as one source put it, the face is "broad, shallow and often open," like a pan. There may also be a link to the pan as the upper part of the skull, a sense dating back to Old English and still around in the word brainpan, meaning skull.

To shut one's pan – to hold one's tongue, to stop talking – dates from the late 1700s. It was based on the pan of a gun, the small hollow that held the powder used to prime the weapon, and the importance of keeping the pan covered. It is tempting to assume that shutting one's pan is therefore the origin of the pan as face, particularly since our language is full of so many similar expressions: shut your face, your piehole, your cakehole, your gob (which since the 1500s has been slang for the mouth). But nobody really knows. The echo may be entirely coincidental.

Pan, the Greek god of flocks and herds, who acquired his name from the belief that he was "the all" ( pan in Greek), figures in a familiar word: panic. It derives from the Greek panikon deima (or, if you prefer, deima panikon), fear of Pan. It seems the god, when he wasn't out gambolling with the nymphs, would haunt the woods at night, make spooky noises and dart forth to frighten passersby.

So a stock-market panic, in which the bears rout the bulls, owes its name to a creature who was half man, half goat. Let it be noted that, in a panic, it is hard to remain deadpan.

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