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Peter out

Lived a miner, forty-niner, and his sidekick, Peter Pan.

Dear Word Detective: I have tried to research the origin of the phrase “peter out” — specifically, who was or what is “peter”? — but my sources seem to have petered out. Help. — Ken Young.

Well, there you go. Researching word origins is a lot like catching a cat so you can give it its medicine. The first day, no problem, it trusts you. But unless your cat is extremely thick, it’s going to recognize what it means when, the next day, you sidle casually into the room whistling something tuneless. Then you get to spend the next eight hours fruitlessly searching the entire house (“I know it’s January, but maybe you opened a window without realizing it.”). The trick is to stride confidently toward the front door, ignoring the cat, and then, at the last moment, fling a large salmon net over the critter. Similarly, the last thing you should do when wondering about an etymological puzzle is to look it in the eye and attempt to “do it yourself.” That way lies madness. Just send your question to me, preferably written in the memo space on a large check. (Just kidding. Sort of. Salmon nets aren’t cheap.)

So, who was or what is the “peter” in “peter out”? I’m not surprised that your search for an answer “petered out” (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “to run out, decrease, or fade; gradually to come to an end or cease to exist”), because the answer is far from clear.

It’s probably easiest to begin by eliminating some possibilities. “Peter out” is almost certainly not related to Saint Peter, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus (even though he famously wavered in his support of Jesus), and does not appear to be drawn from the name of any other “Peter,” whether historical or fictional.

What we do know about “peter out” is that it was a US invention, and that it first appeared in print in the mid-1800s as mining slang, specifically describing a promising vein of ore (gold, silver, etc.) that did not live up to the miners’ hopes (“He discovered they [the lodes] had only a poor sickly trace of ore, which soon ‘petered out’,” 1877.) By the early 20th century, “peter out” was being used to describe nearly anything that, after a promising start, either failed to “pan out” (another 19th century mining term, from panning for gold nuggets in streams) or simply faded away (“Hurricane ‘Belle’ … petered out before reaching the Quoddy area,” 1976).

Given the original mining context, we have two possible explanations for the “peter” in “peter out.” One is what we call “saltpeter” here in the US, but is more properly known as “saltpetre,” aka potassium nitrate, a component of gunpowder. Blasting was a common practice in 19th century mining, and “peter” has been a slang verb since that time meaning “to use explosives” (“The Dolman boys are going to peter a pawnshop safe tonight,” 1962). So it’s possible that exploring a promising vein of ore with the wonder of dynamite and then finding that it leads nowhere gave us “peter out.”

Another possible source, which I think is more likely, is the French verb “péter,” meaning both “to explode” and “to break wind.” This “péter” gave us the English “petard,” a small bomb, as found in the phrase “to be hoist with his own petard,” meaning to be a victim of one’s own scheme. As English slang in the form “peter,” this “péter” was also used to mean “loaded dice” and as a verb meaning “to stop.” It seems possible that “peter” in either the “bomb” or “fart” sense may have given us “peter out” meaning “to stop” or “to prove meaningless.”

Gee willikers

Grid willing, of course.

Dear Word Detective: I recently ran across, though not with my car, your explanation of “criminy,” a word I’ve used since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Not being into the whole brevity thing these days I prefer crime in Italy while contemplating youth in Asia. Interesting that “criminy” is a workaround for “Christ” as so many words are. You included “gosh” and “gee” as euphemisms for “God.” So I started wondering where “gee willikers” comes from. Who or what is Willikers, and is his first name George? — Bernie.

Hmm. I’m not sure I understand your second sentence, but that’s OK. I haven’t really understood much of what’s going on in the world since about fifteen years ago. Most of my social interactions these days seem to consist of smiling and nodding while I back towards the exit. I’ve also found that things go best if you avoid sudden moves, keep your head down and never stand in front of an open window or sit with your back to the door.

Of course, such precautions won’t help any of us evade the attention of whatever deity floats your particular boat, which raises the question of why people have put so much energy into coming up with what linguists call “minced oaths,” e.g., “gee,” “gosh,” golly,” “ciminy,” “gosh darn it,” “gee willikers” and so on ad-nearly-infinitum. “Mince” (from the Old French “mincier”) means “to chop into small pieces,” of course, but since the 16th century it has also been used to mean “to make light of a matter” or “to minimize or lessen” something. To “mince one’s words” is to restrain oneself and use polite language, so to “mince” an oath is to neuter it into a (supposedly) inoffensive euphemism. Most major religions seem to have a prohibition against invoking the Big Cheese’s name to denigrate your brother-in-law, so many minced oaths purportedly aim to avoid celestial censure. But since any deity worth his or her salt knows what you’re really thinking, that “gosh” and “golly” are actually purely for the comfort of your listeners.

The “gee” in “gee willikers,” which is a US invention, is a minced oath for “Jesus,” on a par with “gee,” “jeeze” and “gee whiz.” “Gee” itself first appeared in the US, first found in print in 1895, which seems remarkably recent. (The “first found in print” dates of all such words are, of course, somewhat dubious indicators of their true age, because many publications in the 18th and 19th centuries would probably have been reluctant to print even the neutered form of such oaths.) According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the form “jeeze” (or “jeez”) is an even more recent arrival in print, first appearing in 1923.

“Gee willikers” first appeared in print in the mid-19th century in the form “jewhilliken,” but the form “geewillikin” seems to have been the most popular early form. Like its relatives “gee,” “jeepers,” “jeeze,” et al., it’s primarily an interjection expressing surprise or amazement, rather than serious anger or frustration. The source and meaning of the “willikers” or “williken” component is, unfortunately, unknown, and will probably remain a mystery. One theory is that “geewillikens” was originally a substitution for “Jerusalem!” as an expression of surprise, which was indeed popular in the mid-19th century (“Jee-roosalem! You can’t stand there; the police won’t allow it,” 1898). This theory was popular at the time when “geewillikn” (or “jewhilliken”) itself first appeared (“‘Jerusalem!,’ a favorite New England exclamation. … In the West it is, as usual, improved to suit the louder taste of the people, and becomes “Jewhillikin,’” Americanisms, 1872). Interestingly, it seems likely that “gee whiz,” which appeared at about the same time, originated as a simplified form of “geewillikins” or “gee willikers.”

If “gee willikers” does indeed hark back to “Jerusalem,” then “gee whiz” and similar forms invoke both Jesus and Jerusalem. Of course, “Jerusalem!” as an exclamation might itself have started as a minced oath of “Jesus!”

Desperate / Disparate

Let’s call the whole thing off.

Dear Word Detective: My husband and I were wondering about the words “desperate” and “disparate.” In the dictionary, “desperate” comes from the Latin “desperare” meaning “no hope,” and is related to “despair,” and “disparate” comes from the Latin “disparare,” related to “separate.” Is there no connection at all way back there? They are so close and yet so far. — Doris Render.

“So close and yet so far.” That would be a good summary of the four years I spent in Latin class. I started out taking Latin in junior high school because French looked too scary, but then I landed in a school where Latin was a required subject, and my goose was cooked. Latin has four conjugations for verbs and five declensions for nouns. But by the end of Year Three, my brain was full and I kinda gave up. I basically never learned the fifth declension endings, and, in fact, used to confuse them with the fourth conjugation forms, which made absolutely no sense at all. I’m amazed that I survived Latin class still able to speak English.

So to say that I see your point would be an understatement. Latin has tons of words that bear an infuriating resemblance to each other, which is probably why there’s never been a Latin version of Wheel of Fortune. “Desperate” and “disparate” also, as many people pronounce them,  happen to sound very much alike. Or maybe it’s just me. In any case, I don’t think I’ve ever said  “disparate” aloud and not had someone think I said “desperate.” This is why I tend to stick with “diverse” and “various.”

“Disparate” does mean “dissimilar,” “unlike,” “distinct,” “diverse” or “varied.” Two things can be “disparate” from each other, or an assemblage of things or people can be “disparate” as a whole (“The job ad was so vague that it was answered by a disparate procession that included a bartender, two lawyers and a mime”). “Disparate” is derived from the Latin “disparatus,” which is the past participle of “disparare,” a verb meaning “to divide or separate.” That “disparare” combines the prefix “dis,” in this case signifying “apart,” with “parare,” meaning “to prepare.” And here things get interesting. “Disparate” doesn’t mean “prepared apart,” exactly. It means “unlike, dissimilar.” And that’s because the modern meaning of “disparate” was influenced by a very similar but completely separate Latin word, “dispar,” which means “unequal, unlike.” Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about not mastering those fifth declension endings.

“Desperate,” on the other hand, comes from the Latin “desperare,” meaning “to lose hope, to have no hope” or “to despair” (“despair,” in fact, is simply “desperare” filtered through Old French). “Desperare” was, in turn, a combination of the prefix “de,” which reverses the action of a verb (“decompose,” “demagnetize,” etc.), plus “sperare,” meaning “to hope,” giving us something close to “unhope.” The root of that “sperare,” interestingly, is “spes,” a Latin noun meaning “hope.” “Spes” is one of only four fifth declension Latin nouns not ending in “ies,” a fact which I remember because I got it wrong on a test in 11th grade. Hey, did my old Latin teacher put you up to asking this question?

When “desperate” first showed up in English in the 15th century, it was an adjective meaning, when applied to people, “having given up all hope” or, applied to situations, “leaving  scant room for hope; very serious or dangerous.” It wasn’t until late in the 15th century that the modern meaning of “desperate,” that of “driven to recklessness by anguish or despair” or “involving great risk of failure with little chance of success” (“Bob made a desperate break for the door when a game of Charades was announced”) became standard.

So “desperate” and “disparate” do strongly resemble each other in form today, but the further you trace them back, the less they have in common.