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I once heard, I think it was on a TV program about searching for gold in Alaska, the phrase "panned out" used by someone who was panning for gold. He declared a specific area was "panned out" and I took his meaning to be there was no longer any gold to be found there.

Looking around, I found a user having a similar question here: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pan%20out

Do anyone have an early reference for the use of the phrase and can we be sure its earliest usage referred to success?

There is the phrase "strike gold" that refers to success. The usage of "pan out" to mean the opposite seemed authentic to me.

Edit: Thanks for all the replies! I found early quotations here: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pan_out where it is used in the narrow sense of extracting gold. If anyone has any early quotes of other usage, that would be interesting. This link has a quote from Reagan: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pan%20out. I have not found the source, is this from his presidency? According to the usage trends here: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/pan-out, the use of the term has increased substantially since the mid 80s. Did the usage change around that time to more generally refer to success, maybe in response to Reagan's usage of the phrase? More info would be interesting!

  • 1
    At a guess: panning for gold. If you found gold, it panned out. Complete speculation but now I'm committed to it. – Dan Bron Mar 27 '17 at 0:58
  • Yep, from panning for gold. If a prospecting site "pans out" it means that when some sand was washed in a pan flakes of gold appeared. The panning process relies on the fact that gold is extremely heavy and will stay in the bottom of the pan as lighter materials are washed out. – Hot Licks Mar 27 '17 at 3:34
  • @HotLicks - but when everyone has panned until there’s no gold left, has it been “panned out”? – Jim Mar 27 '17 at 3:46
  • @Jim - It has been "played out", and maybe on or two other similar terms. – Hot Licks Mar 27 '17 at 3:47
  • There is to pan out, which can mean 1 to succeed, 2 to turn out, to conclude. These both originate from the specific process of panning or panning out gold from sand/soil using water in a pan; or from the extended sense of panning, meaning to search for gold by such a panning process. When the panning of a specific area has been brought to a conclusion that area has been panned out. This use of out ("To the conclusion or finish; to an end, to completion, to exhaustion."-OED) is different from the other use of out ("So as to reach a definite consequence, issue, or end result"-OED) – 9fyj'j55-8ujfr5yhjky-'tt6yhkjj Mar 27 '17 at 5:12
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pan ( v) (Online Etymology Dictionary):

"to wash gravel or sand in a pan in search of gold," 1839, from pan (n.); thus to pan out "turn out, succeed" (1868) is a figurative use of this (literal sense from 1849).

2

pan out

  1. pan out - be a success; "The idea panned out": bring home the bacon, deliver the goods, succeed, win, come through - attain success or reach a desired goal
  2. pan out - wash dirt in a pan to separate out the precious minerals pan off, pan wash - separate dirt or gravel from (precious minerals)

(Thesaurus based on WordNet 3.0)

out (particle)

  1. used to indicate exhaustion or extinction: the sugar's run out; put the light out.

(Collins)

Here's an example of (12), from family descriptions I've heard of soil fertility in the Deep South:

Those fields were cottoned out.

It means that from so many years of growing cotton, without enriching or resting the soil, the soil was fertility destroyed or damaged.

In a similar way, I could imagine someone saying that a mine or a region was panned out, meaning that gold had been panned to such an extent there that there was no significant gold left available there.

  • Mines whose resources are exhausted are usually referred to as worked out. I suspect that an alluvial gold field which no longer produces gold would also be called worked out, alluvial gold fields are not only worked by panning but also by other methods. – BoldBen Dec 24 '18 at 9:57
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In the book Why Do We Say It? The Stories Behind The Words, Expressions and Cliches We Use(1985) the term "Pan Out" is defined as:

It's a gold mining term. One method of obtaining gold dust is to take a handful or so of the sand in which it's found and place it with a little water in a "pan." Then, by sloshing the water back and forth, the lighter sand, dirt, and pebbles can be sluiced over the edge while the gold dust, which is heavier, will remain behind in the pan - and so "pan out."

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