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If your patience wears thin, you become less and less patient. This phrase is also used in other contexts, but I have only ever heard it used to refer to "patience". Another meaning is (from Cambridge):

If something such as a joke wears thin, it becomes boring or annoying or stops being funny or effective, because it has been seen, heard, or used too much

I wonder how wear and thin came to be used together and mean that (above).

Dictionary.com dates the first sense (about patience) back to Late 1800s and the other sense to the First half of 1990s but doesn't say anything about how and why they came to be used that way. This Google Ngram shows that "wears thin"/"wearing thin"/"wore thin" has been in use since before 1750.
I am unable to find anything else on the internet.

Can anyone provide some insight?

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    'Wear thin' in its metaphorical sense 'His patience was wearing thin' is transparent. // In the metaphorical sense 'That joke is wearing thin') there is more opaqueness; 'there's not much of substance / merit left'. A later broadening, as Dictionary.com says. Mar 4, 2021 at 11:38
  • Note that the expression would be used literally by a mechanic.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 4, 2021 at 13:33
  • @HotLicks Absolutely. Thin as an old coat or sweater.
    – Tuffy
    Mar 8, 2021 at 21:11

4 Answers 4

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The connotation of wear of “using up, consume” is quite old:

Wear:

Secondary sense of "use up, gradually damage" (late 13c.) is from effect of continued use on clothes.

(Etymonline)

Its figurative usage is more recent, especially the second figurative sense of wear thin:

  1. Be weakened or diminished gradually, as in My patience is wearing thin. (Late 1800s)
  1. Become less convincing, acceptable, or popular, as in His excuses are wearing thin. (First half of 1990s) Both usages transfer the thinning of a physical object, such as cloth, to nonmaterial characteristics.

(The American Heritage Dictionary)

Note that Google Books usage examples of wear thin from 18th c. and most of 19th c. are in the physical sense.

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  • Do you know why "thin" was added to "wear"?
    – user387044
    Mar 5, 2021 at 5:16
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    @Sphinx - I think it is a natural addition of an adjective that makes the concept of wearing (use/consume by friction) stronger.
    – user 66974
    Mar 5, 2021 at 7:44
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Many objects, particularly moving parts of say an engine, need to be lubricated. This prevents friction between the moving parts which started life a certain size. Too much friction removes material from either of the moving objects. They are no longer the correct size, so as a result they can fail. Also a carpet can wear thin from the friction caused by umpteen footsteps, each causing friction.Too many footsteps mean the carpet could wear thin. If too thin, the carpet fibres will break and, eventually, there will be a hole exposing the floor beneath. This is the consequence of ‘wearing [too] thin.’ This example can be used with the concept of ‘patience’.

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A definition of wear that fits here:

Undergo damage, erosion, or destruction as a result of friction or use.

If something like a piece of clothing or a rope wears thin, it gets threadbare over time because of friction.

Taken figuratively, patience or a joke can lose its effectiveness after overuse.

As for its etymology, the phrase seems to be in use in the literal sense of getting thinner through use in the early 19th century from what I could find on google books, and by the late 1800s there are plenty examples of the figurative sense.

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  • Please attribute and link properly, showing where the quote starts and ends. The Lexico definition that fits is the one below the one you mention (2.1 no object, with adverbial or complement: Undergo damage, erosion, or destruction by friction or use.) You give the related transitive sense, (2). // This doesn't address the appearance of the actual colligation 'wear thin'. Mar 4, 2021 at 11:31
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    Sorry, I'm on mobile and don't remember how to do the quoting off the top of my head, I'll edit it and add a link once I'm at my pc. Good point about it being transitive!
    – Curiosity
    Mar 4, 2021 at 11:37
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I wonder how wear and thin came to be used together and mean that (above).

Well I know we tend to rely on google for most things nowadays but surely not for this!

Has no one had a jumper or some socks that has been well worn?

Well if you have just before the holes appear at the elbows or heels if you hold them up you will be able to see through them. The material has become thin and almost worn through.

Leather on shoes, boots and harnesses also become thin with use

So something wears thin just before it breaks.

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