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Peter out

Posted by R. Berg on October 10, 2009 at 14:58

In Reply to: Peter out posted by James Briggs on October 10, 2009 at 10:10:

: : : : When punt receivers want the ball to come to a stop, rather than catch it, they say "peter" to alert their teammates. Does this practice originate from the phrase "peter out"?

: : : Terms in sports and games are often widespread orally before anyone thinks to question them or write them down and sometimes the "original" meaning is lost.
: : : A couple of guesses gleaned from the Internet: a peter (penis) is something a football player wouldn't want to touch (evidentally there are some teams that shout "poison" also something you don't want to touch) or it's from "Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater" - I'm guessing because he "couldn't keep her".

: : The Oxford English Dictionary defines the origin thus: "Origin unknown," and gives two somewhat similar definitions.

: : "1. intr. To run out, decrease, or fade; gradually to come to an end or cease to exist. In early use esp. of a vein of ore (U.S. Mining slang). Usu. with out. [citations:]
: : 1846 Quincy (Illinois) Whig 6 Jan. 1/4 When my mineral petered why they all Petered me. If so be I gets a lead, why I'm Mr. Tiff again. 1854 H. H. RILEY Puddleford vi. 84 He 'hoped this 'spectable meeting war n't going to Peter-out'. 1865 S. BOWLES Across Continent 133 Humboldt River..runs west and south from three hundred to five hundred miles, and then finds ignominious end in a 'sink', or..quietly 'peters out'. . . .

: : "2. trans. U.S. To finish off, to exhaust; to cause or allow to peter out; to fritter, squander. With out, away.
: : 1869 [implied in PETERED adj.]. 1878 C. HALLOCK Amer. Club List & Sportsman's Gloss. p. viii/1 Peter-out, to fail; to exhaust; to collapse. , , ,"

: : Among the citations are some that use peter by itself as a verb, without "out" or "away."
: : SS

: But why 'peter' in this sense? Although no source is given in the OED, it could come from the American gold fields where the black powder used as an explosive is said to have been 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. Was the word 'peter' used for an explosive? I'm unsure.

Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: "peter out. To cease gradually; come to an end: U.S. anglicised as a [colloquialism] almost [immediately]; by 1930 [Standard English]. . . ."

Partridge speculates that the phrase might have originated from French _péter_.

Now it's a French speaker's turn. ~rb