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shameless pleading





Peter out

Lived a miner, forty-niner, and his sidekick, Peter Pan.

Dear Word Detective: I have tried to research the origin of the phrase “peter out” — specifically, who was or what is “peter”? — but my sources seem to have petered out. Help. — Ken Young.

Well, there you go. Researching word origins is a lot like catching a cat so you can give it its medicine. The first day, no problem, it trusts you. But unless your cat is extremely thick, it’s going to recognize what it means when, the next day, you sidle casually into the room whistling something tuneless. Then you get to spend the next eight hours fruitlessly searching the entire house (“I know it’s January, but maybe you opened a window without realizing it.”). The trick is to stride confidently toward the front door, ignoring the cat, and then, at the last moment, fling a large salmon net over the critter. Similarly, the last thing you should do when wondering about an etymological puzzle is to look it in the eye and attempt to “do it yourself.” That way lies madness. Just send your question to me, preferably written in the memo space on a large check. (Just kidding. Sort of. Salmon nets aren’t cheap.)

So, who was or what is the “peter” in “peter out”? I’m not surprised that your search for an answer “petered out” (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “to run out, decrease, or fade; gradually to come to an end or cease to exist”), because the answer is far from clear.

It’s probably easiest to begin by eliminating some possibilities. “Peter out” is almost certainly not related to Saint Peter, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus (even though he famously wavered in his support of Jesus), and does not appear to be drawn from the name of any other “Peter,” whether historical or fictional.

What we do know about “peter out” is that it was a US invention, and that it first appeared in print in the mid-1800s as mining slang, specifically describing a promising vein of ore (gold, silver, etc.) that did not live up to the miners’ hopes (“He discovered they [the lodes] had only a poor sickly trace of ore, which soon ‘petered out’,” 1877.) By the early 20th century, “peter out” was being used to describe nearly anything that, after a promising start, either failed to “pan out” (another 19th century mining term, from panning for gold nuggets in streams) or simply faded away (“Hurricane ‘Belle’ … petered out before reaching the Quoddy area,” 1976).

Given the original mining context, we have two possible explanations for the “peter” in “peter out.” One is what we call “saltpeter” here in the US, but is more properly known as “saltpetre,” aka potassium nitrate, a component of gunpowder. Blasting was a common practice in 19th century mining, and “peter” has been a slang verb since that time meaning “to use explosives” (“The Dolman boys are going to peter a pawnshop safe tonight,” 1962). So it’s possible that exploring a promising vein of ore with the wonder of dynamite and then finding that it leads nowhere gave us “peter out.”

Another possible source, which I think is more likely, is the French verb “péter,” meaning both “to explode” and “to break wind.” This “péter” gave us the English “petard,” a small bomb, as found in the phrase “to be hoist with his own petard,” meaning to be a victim of one’s own scheme. As English slang in the form “peter,” this “péter” was also used to mean “loaded dice” and as a verb meaning “to stop.” It seems possible that “peter” in either the “bomb” or “fart” sense may have given us “peter out” meaning “to stop” or “to prove meaningless.”

7 comments to Peter out

  • Greg hebert

    According to another website the French Peter also meant to fizzle. I suspect the term referenced a fuse that fizzled out as the literal meaning and then was used analogously for a vein of or that fizzled out. And saltpeter reinforced the analogy.

    Second, flatulence is a meaning of petard so, literally being lifted by your own gas because you were so full of it is where the Brits came up with hoisted on his own petard. Full of hot air is the American equivalent.

  • Paul

    French for chest is ‘poitrine’

  • Walter Hettinger

    It seems to me that there is an obvious deduction to be made here. Peter is also rock. A valuable vein of ore that gradually is lost in the surrounding rock will have “petered out”-i.e has become rock or is lost in rock.

  • Tripp Clarke

    Is it possible that the phrase is recent enough to be referencing The Peter Principle? Which suggests when a person has reached their highest level of competency in an organization, i.e. “he petered out in his job competency?”

  • Anonymous

    Wonderful response from you. It is like an extensive lesson. I appreciate it. I knew the meaning, but I just looked for it to see if the author meant to say anything more.

  • Dick Scoones

    The Spanish word petardo means firework in English. I suspect ‘hoist by his own petard’ has little to do with French farts and vacuous Englishmen – although I like the poetry of the suggestion – and more to do with the person who seeks to do verbal or physical harm to others and he literally ends up being the victim of his own device… in going up with the rocket. Petardos, gunpowder, fizzling out, end of stocks, the damp fuse, mining…that sounds right to me.

  • Kalense

    Péter has other meanings in French, besides explode and fart. The phrase “je suis pété” can mean “I’m falling-down drunk” or “I’m utterly exhausted”. I wonder whether there’s some link between petered out and the second sense of the phrase, completely exhausted.

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