(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XVI, published 1892)

Passage 251

“This is the end of me commercially. I give up; my nerve is gone. I suppose I ought to be glad; for we're through the court. I don't know as ever I knew how, and I'm sure I don't remember. If it pans out—the wreck, I mean—we'll go to Europe, and live on the interest of our money. No more work for me. I shake when people speak to me. I have gone on, hoping and hoping, and working and working, and the lead has pinched right out. I want to lie on my back in a garden and read Shakespeare and E. P. Roe. Don't suppose it's cowardice, Loudon. I'm a sick man. Rest is what I must have. I've worked hard all my life; I never spared myself; every dollar I ever made, I've coined my brains for it. I've never done a mean thing; I've lived respectable, and given to the poor. Who has a better right to a holiday than I have? And I mean to have a year of it straight out; and if I don't, I shall lie right down here in my tracks, and die of worry and brain trouble.

This wording troubles me. In particular pinch out is a problem for me. There are some hints as to geology and plants but that doesn't work here in my opinion. And the word lead is a problem as well. It seems to mean the lead with sounding but I can't nail it in this context.

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    It is a mining metaphor. A lead is a cut made to get access to a seam of ore. When the ore exposed "pinches" it grows narrower, and when it "pinches out" it has narrowed down to nothing. Compare "peter out". Nov 6, 2023 at 13:40
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    He's saying "I'm used up, depleted, I feel as though I've got nothing left in me". Nov 6, 2023 at 13:50
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    @FumbleFingers OP is caught in a catch-22, not knowing whether what is being asked about is current usage or not. If it's current usage and the question is posed on english.stackexchange.com the question is sent here. If it's not current usage, it's off-topic here. I don't think answering questions on older usages is going to open the floodgates for such questions here. Nov 6, 2023 at 16:57
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    TimR is right - I'm caught in a catch-22. My mother tongue isn't English hence I'm not able to realize if the wording is dated or obsolete or not. I don't like FumbleFingers' permanent nagging. If you don't like to answer the question don't do it. If you worry about the learners here please add your comment regarding the current usage - that will help and will be a positive and extra benefit; I'd be pleased about that.
    – philphil
    Nov 6, 2023 at 18:12
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    I should apologize for the "nagging". Per previous comment, I fully accept that you don't need to accept my advice. I'm only really commenting to warn other learners that it's probably not in their best interests to take too much notice of the answers to many of your questions. Without such a warning, many learners might be misled into thinking peter out and pinch out are "equivalent", and I can easily imagine that of the two, they'd be more likely to remember the latter, simply because it's a known verb in other contexts. But it wouldn't work in conversational contexts today! Nov 6, 2023 at 18:20

1 Answer 1


to pinch out in this context is a mining metaphor. A lead is a cut made to get access to a seam of ore. When the ore exposed "pinches" it grows narrower, and when it "pinches out" it has narrowed down to nothing. Compare "peter out".

He's saying that he's done with working and wants to stop. It's analogous to someone saying "I've run out of steam", with the meaning that he hasn't got it in him to persevere any longer in an endeavor.

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