What's the origin of the phrase "PETER OUT"?
My colleague Rick Thompson asks, "What's the origin of the phrase, 'to peter out'?" Word origins chased me out of the answerin' business (until recently,) but RT tolerates my daily intrusions on his work space so politely that I felt duty bound to dust off my etymological references and the internet to scratch his intellectual itch.
The bottom line is that the OED indicates that peter, meaning "become exhausted or give out," is of unknown origin. The rest of this column is composed of speculative etymology gleaned from tomes and web pages, none of which include a "cite" to support their various notions. Thus, in no particular order:
The Phrase Finder suggests that,
"The phrase apparently originated in the mining camps of America in the 19th century. The 'peter' was saltpetre."
Take Our Word presented this dissertation, which is, frankly, quite complete. I own the Charles Funk book referred to herein, and I must say that Funk, while entertaining, is generally quite light on documentation.
From Joseph R. Schmitt:
I have always thought the term petered out referred to a fuse or powder trail which lost fire before reaching the charge, as in mining, where the expression is used to denote the end of a vein, or as with a flintlock or cannon, where the fire must be led to the main charge. I find no proof.
Joseph Schmitt - don't you make chocolate truffles in San Francisco? Oh, sorry, that's Joseph Schmidt. Well, not-the-truffle-guy-Joseph, petered out is one of those phrases that the OED claims is of unknown etymology. However, we've done a little mining of our own and have found a couple of possible explanations for the phrase, though there's little to no proof for either of them.
Charles Funk admits that the phrase's origin is not known, but he guesses that it might come directly from St. Peter, who, in the Garden of Gethsemane, went from an ear-cutting defense of Christ to a lily-livered denial in a very short time. It's not a huge leap from that image to the meaning of peter out: "to diminish gradually and come to an end." However, Ernest Weekley thinks it could come from French peter, "fart" and refers us to the term fizzle out, another onomatopoeic term (from the sound of the fuse on a firecracker or the like sputtering out). Yet Paul C. Beale, editor of our copy of Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, likes the St. Peter story.
The term dates from the early 18th century in the U.S. The first recorded usage is as mining slang, referring to a mineral petering out.
Another word which probably comes from St. Peter is peter meaning something which is secured with a lock. This is because St. Peter was depicted holding the keys to heaven. In the early 1600s a peter meant a trunk but it now survives only as British criminal slang for a "safe" or a "jail cell". (Though, of course, in Britain, that would be written "gaol cell".)
From the Usenet group, alt.usage-english we find this summary:
This expression meaning "to dwindle to nothing" is recorded from 1846, which precludes derivation "peter" in the sense "penis", an Americanism not attested until 1902. "To peter out" was apparently first used by American miners referring to exhausted veins of ore. The origin is uncertain. It may come from "saltpetre" (used in the miners' explosives, so called because it forms a salt-like crust on rocks, ultimately from Greek _petra_ = "rock", whence we also get "petrify" and "petroleum"); or it may come from French _peter_, which literally means "to fart" but is used figuratively to mean "to fizzle" and in the phrase _peter dans la main_ = "to come to nothing" (this comes from the Indo-European root _*perd-/_*pezd-_, whence we get "fart", "feisty", "fizzle", "partridge", "pedicular", and "petard").
The Bedtime Browser sounds definitive, although no factual basis backs up its speculation. It avers the following.
Peter: If something peters out then it comes gradually and gently to an end. The saying comes from the American gold fields where the black powder used as an explosive was known as peter, after the saltpetre on which it was based. When a seam was truly worked out even the peter couldn't bring forth more gold.
Finally, at http://www.cam.org/~jennyb/lasto3.html, we find similar notions.
It seems unlikely that disappointed American miners during the '49 gold rush derived the expression to peter out, 'to taper off or come to an end,' from the French peter, 'to break wind.' This would indeed have been an expression of their disappointment when a mine failed to yield more gold, but there were ample American words available to express the same sentiment. Another guess is that the 'peter' here refers to the apostle Peter, who first rushed to Christ's defense in the Garden of Gethsemane, sword in hand, and then before the cock crowed thrice denied that he even knew Him. Most likely the expression springs from the fact that veins of ore in mines frequently petered out, or turned to stone. The gunpowder mixture of saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal, commonly called peter by miners, was used as an explosive in mining operations and when a vein of gold was exhausted it was said to have been petered out.
So what does mrlucky think?
My impression is that most of these "scholars" got their ideas from Charles Funk, whose book, "A Hog On Ice & Other Curious Expressions", was published in 1948. As his conclusions seem to have been formed without proper citation, you can take 'em or leave 'em as you see fit. The OED ain't saying, so neither will I.