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Question: In our office we often use the term "overnight" as a verb, to refer to sending a package by overnight mail. But this sense isn't in the dictionary, and we're wondering whether it's appropriate to use the word in our office correspondence, or if we use it, whether we should enclose it in quotation marks.

Answer: The verb "overnight," meaning "to send by overnight mail," is used much more in speech than in writing, but that doesn't mean that it is unacceptable in your correspondence, or that you need to put quotation marks (so-called "shudder quotes") around it when you use it. Assuming the reader will readily understand what is meant, there's no reason to avoid this verb in the context of a business letter or memo.

"Overnight" has been used as verb meaning "to stay overnight" since the end of the 19th century. Our earliest print example of the new sense you describe is from 1990, but it was doubtless used in speech before that. If we continue to gather evidence of its use, it will be a good candidate for inclusion in the dictionary before long.

The derivation of the verb "overnight" from "overnight mail" follows a familiar noun-to-verb pattern - though in this case the process also involves a shortening of a noun phrase. In this regard "overnight" is similar to "morse," a (now mostly forgotten) verb used in the first half of this century, which was derived from the noun phrase "Morse code" and was used with the meaning "to communicate or signal to by means of Morse code."

A similar process produced the verb "telephone" just months after Alexander Graham Bell patented his new invention in 1876. The verbs "e-mail" and "fax" are likewise derived from slightly older nouns, as is the verb "telegraph," which first appeared several years after the telegraph was invented and named in 1792. The process is not always so quick. It took nearly 175 years from the time "mail" was first used to mean "a postal system" (as in "to send by mail") in the mid-17th century until the verb "mail" was first recorded in the early 19th century. The verb "post" has a similar history, although when "post" meant "courier," in the 17th century, to "post" something was to "send by special courier," a sense now obsolete.

Question: Could you tell me where and how the phrase "all petered out" originated?

Answer: The origins of the verb "peter," meaning "to become exhausted," are obscure. Some ideas about how the term developed have been suggested, but it is unclear whether any of them are correct.

The most popular theory is that the word originated in the gold-mining camps of the western United States in the first half of the 19th century. In fact, the earliest written evidence we have of the term, from 1846, quotes a speaker who seems to be a miner lamenting the ups and downs of his career in the colloquial language of his time: "When my mineral petered why they all Petered me. If so be I gets a lead, why I'm Mr. Tiff again."

Two methods of mining were used in these camps. When we think of this era now, the image that usually comes to mind is that of a prospector crouched over a stream with his pan, sorting through silt to find flakes of gold. This was known as "placer" mining, and it was in some ways the easiest type of mining. After nature had eroded or leached the gold out of the rocks, all that remained to the miner was to separate the gold from the eroded dirt. However, in order to reach the gold still buried in solid rock, the miners also used a method known as "lode" mining, setting off explosives inside the rock to break it up and reveal the gold.

The explosive used in lode mining contained a mixture of sulphur, charcoal and saltpeter (potassium nitrate). Since it contained saltpeter, the explosive was commonly known as "peter" among miners. According to this theory, when a vein of gold had been worked to exhaustion and there was no point in blasting further, it was said to have "petered out."