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Ashes Wrap: Smith century sees Test peter out to draw.

Commentary Box 4th January 2018

Phrase.org gives a number of rather half-hearted attempts at establishing a possible origin of the expression. It refers to Peter the Apostle and his denial; it refers to saltpetre; and it makes a stab at linking the two together.

The only plausible part of its explanation is the suggestion that it comes from mining :

When my mineral petered why they all Petered me. Now it is dig, dig, dig, drill, drill for nothing. My luck is clean gone - tapered down to nothing.

December 1845 Milwaukee Daily Gazette.

The AmE Ngram rises from 1860ish, a little earlier than the BrE, but both keep pace after that.

Where does this expression actually come from ?

3 Answers 3

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I found some discussion of it in The Dial, Volume 45:

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"Tapering down to nothing" does seem to be the common imagery.

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My perception is that the saying is not specific to the USA and has likely predated the USA in the British empire. Many of our sayings have origins in ancient belief systems or mythologies. Most of the European world, including the British empire was influenced by the Christian religion and associated stories about St. Peter in particular. This background information, for me, strongly supports the idea that to "Peter out" is related to the St. Peter story of his loss of faith and denial of Jesus before the crucifixion.

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  • Perceptive comment..+1.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 14, 2019 at 15:57
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I think that the Latin word for rock may well explain the term "peter out." The dwindling of a vein of ore to mere rock could result in such a term. The ore "rocked out" or "petered out." Is there any such phrase used in any Romance language, one wonders.

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  • You might want to explicitly state the latin word for rock rather than expecting everyone to know latin or look it up elsewhere. Jan 4, 2020 at 14:58
  • Generally here it is good to provide references, and not "I think" answers.
    – GEdgar
    Jan 4, 2020 at 15:51

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