What Does Peter Out Mean?

To Peter Out Meaning

Definition: To diminish more and more until gone or stopped.

Origin of To Peter Out

This expression originated in the 1800s. It is unclear exactly how it developed. Some sources speculate it may have come from mining since many early examples relate to mining.

One of the first sources is from the Milwaukee Daily Gazette in December, 1845.

  • 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.

Examples of To Peter Out

where did the phrase petered out come fromThis example shows two college students using the idiom while rock climbing.

Frank: Hey, you’re really good at rock climbing!

Karl: Yeah, well, I used to do it all the time.

Frank: Really? I didn’t know that. I’ve never seen you rock climb or heard you talk about it before.

Karl: That’s because I don’t usually do it anymore.

Frank: Why not? What happened to make you stop?

Karl: There was nothing specific. I guess my interest level just sort of petered out as I got older and went into high school.

define petering outIn this example, two friends are driving when something happens to their car.

Lily: Grace, you’re driving so slow! Speed up!

Grace: It’s not me. It’s the car. It won’t accelerate.

Lily: Just give it more gas.

Grace: I’m trying, but it’s not working.

Lily: Well, hurry up and do something.

Grace: I want to, but I can’t. It will only go slowly. Oh no, I think it’s going to stop completely.

Lily: And now the car is dead. I can’t believe the car totally petered out on us. We’ve only just begun this road trip!

More Examples

The excerpt below is from an opinion article on making LA more business friendly.

  • A.’s political leaders have a history of grand pronouncements and promises that peter out or never take hold. –LA Times

This excerpt is about the spread of a wildfire.

  • There is a long fire history in the Kern River Valley. But usually the flames run to the top of Cook Peak and then peter out, said Joe Appleton, a battalion chief with the Kern County Fire Department. –LA Times

Grammar and Usage

To peter out is a regular, intransitive phrasal verb. Therefore, the past tense and past participle are both petered out. There is no object after it.

Summary

The phrase to peter out means to slowly become less and less until nothing remains.

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