Peter Out

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Peter Out : Phrases


Dwindle away to nothing.



The earliest use of peter as a verb meaning dwindle relate to the mining industry in the USA in the mid 19th century. It is reasonable to accept that that is when and where it originated. Thoughts of US mining at that date brings to mind images of the California Gold Rush, which is sometimes suggested as the source of this phrase. The earliest use of peter that is known is found in the Illinois newspaper The Quincy Whig, January 1846, which that pre-dates the California rush (although there was an earlier Georgia Gold Rush in 1829):

"When my mineral petered why they all Petered me."

The first known record of the addition of 'out' to 'peter' is in the American lawyer and writer Henry Hiram Riley's collection of articles - Puddleford and its people, 1854:

"He hoped this 'spectable meeting warn't going to Peter-out."

While the source of the phrase is fairly certainly mining, the derivation isn't at all certain and there's no clear understanding of why 'peter' was chosen in this context. As always, when an etymology is unknown, people like to guess. These speculations include a suggestion of a link to Saint Peter and to the story that his faith in Jesus faded when he denied him before his crucifixion. Another is an allusion to the French péter (to fart - literally, to explode but also used figuratively to mean fizzle), as in the phrase péter dans la main, meaning 'to come to nothing'. The only one of the speculative derivations of the peter in peter out that stands up to scrutiny is that is comes from saltpetre (potassium nitrate). This mineral was a constituent of the gunpowder that was used in mining. Saltpetre is at least associated with something that miners would have known something about, i.e. mining, as opposed to theology or French quotations.

We are delving further into the realms of speculation here but, if peter out is a reference to saltpetre it could be on account of the need to locate a source of the mineral in order to make the explosives necessary to follow a mining seam. No saltpetre - no mining.
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