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shameless pleading

Mexican standoff

Lose/Lose

Dear Word Detective: I have been trying for some years to determine the origin, and original meaning, of the term, “Mexican standoff.” At one time, one could not find this anywhere (or anywhere that I found); but now, there are some “authorities” that provide a definition, but no origin. As far as I can see, those definitions define what is usually called a “standoff”; there is no is no information as to what would render a standoff “Mexican.” My belief is that the term “Mexican standoff” refers to a particular kind of standoff, christened for some incident (in the Mexican-American War, perhaps?). I have a vague recollection of being told by someone (not an authority) that a “Mexican” standoff is one in which either advance or retreat would be fatal for either side, whereas in a normal standoff, one or both sides may have the possibility of non-fatal retreat. I have no solid references for this, however. If you can solve this one, I will be tremendously thankful and impressed. — Mikael.

Hey, me too, because the question itself is giving me an anxiety attack. I have a lifelong aversion to personal confrontations, so I rarely end up in any sort of standoff. In fact, I routinely agree to all sorts of things just to avoid conflict, which is how I’ve managed to wind up simultaneously belonging to the Church of Scientology, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Young Socialists League, the NRA and PETA. I’ve definitely got to stop answering the door.

Your question about “Mexican standoff,” a phrase which first appeared in print around 1891, is actually two questions: first, how does a Mexican standoff differ from a “regular” standoff? Secondly, what makes that kind of standoff “Mexican”?

As to the first question, opinions evidently vary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “standoff” (they prefer “stand-off,” which seems a bit stand-offish) as “Any uneasy stalemate or deadlock; an impasse,” but also as “A draw or tie, as in a game…,” a definition that Oxford notes comes from an 1895 dictionary. A “Mexican standoff” seems to be a subset of the more general “standoff.” The OED defines “Mexican standoff” as “A deadlock, stalemate, impasse; a roughly equal (and frequently unsatisfactory) outcome to a conflict in which there is no clear winner or loser,” and The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English defines the term as “A situation in which nobody clearly has the advantage or emerges a clear winner.”

The key difference between a “Mexican standoff” and a garden variety “standoff” seems to be the equal strength of the two parties and thus the lack of a clear result. A regular standoff may be a temporary roadblock or impasse, in negotiations, for example, that eventually ends in either a surrender or an agreement, albeit grudgingly. A “Mexican standoff,” however, is a complete stalemate, and both sides lose by being forced to walk away without a victory.

Several sources I have found suggest that the “Mexican” modifier in the phrase refers to a supposed proclivity of 19th century Mexican “bandits” for running away from a fair fight. But the first example of “Mexican standoff” found so far in print used the phrase to describe a baseball game ending in a tie, and subsequent uses employ the term as a simple synonym of “stalemate” with nary an actual Mexican in sight. The “Mexican” in “Mexican standoff” is thus  almost certainly just another entry in the long and shameful roster of US slang terms employing “Mexican” as a slur meaning “fraudulent, inferior, or marked by poverty, poor sanitation, lack of sophistication or ignorance.” Such formations as “Mexican bankroll” (one large denomination bill wrapped around a roll of smaller bills), “Mexican athlete” (a phony braggart) and “Mexican breakfast” (a cigarette and a glass of water) all reflect the same derogatory national rivalry. A “Mexican standoff,” in this light, is called “Mexican” because it is pointless, inconclusive and unproductive, not because it has any actual connection to Mexico.

23 comments to Mexican standoff

  • Somewhere, probably from a movie or TV, I got the idea that a Mexican standoff describes two people facing each other and pointing loaded weapons: not just a stalemate, but one that is almost impossible to safely extricate oneself from. Being first to shoot, second to shoot, or not shooting at all could be fatal, as could walking away.

  • Nathan

    I’ve always thought a Mexican stand-off was one involving three parties rather than two. In a two-party stand-off each is preventing the other from making some move to resolve the conflict, but in the three-party situation each is preventing the one in front of them from making a move while being threatened from the side. An example should make this idea much clearer: person A is pointing a gun at person B who is pointing a gun at person C who is pointing a gun at person A. Nobody can fire first because even if they hit and kill their target they will still be shot in turn by the third party. Compare this to just A and B pointing guns at each other, where the person who fires first at least has some hope that the other person won’t be able to shoot back.

    I’ve understood this to be the definition for decades, but don’t know where ‘Mexican’ comes into it or where I got the idea from – probably I absorbed it from some movie or other. Certainly both two- and three-way shoot-outs are common in action movies and TV shows, but clearly my definition is not the common interpretation.

  • Arch Stanton

    I agree with Nathan in that I’ve always thought it was a three-way standoff. A great cinematic example can be found near the end of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. However, I don’t believe that movie specifically referred to it as a “Mexican Standoff”, and I don’t know where or when I learned this distinction, so I will defer to Mr. Morris’s research with many thanks.

    Speaking of standoffs, I’m trying to submit a question to the site, but no code appears. The site refuses to submit my question without my first verifying the code, but fails to provide me with a code to verify (perhaps it’s more of a Catch-22?). I imagine it must be one of those spoof-proof squiggly alphabet things, but it does not appear on the web page. Sad-faced emoticon.

  • Justin

    a “mexican standoff” is what nathan said. it was originated by an italian-american spaghetti western film director, sergio leone. a group of three or more people would each point their gun at a different person in the group.

  • Reva

    Sorry, I always heard the roll of $1s with a $20 on the outside called a Philadelphia bankroll…

    • Dave

      I always heard the roll of $1s with a $20 on the outside called a Jewish bankroll…
      Pick whichever group you want to slur I guess

  • Fred B

    At least 80 years ago and certainly 60 years ago, long before Italian produced western flicks, any American man or boy understood the phrase. It was used in many movies and western novels to describe an armed confrontation with no likely winner. These stand-offs might end in gunfire, but more likely the parties would disengage with nothing settled. Mexicans were not normally involved. It is certainly possible though that the term when first used in some early popular novel or movie a Mexican or Mexicans were parties.

    I speculate that the Mexican was intended to denote a slightly exotic origin or experience for the person using the term, “You know what they call this down Mexico way” or to incorporate the historically accurate background of Mexico as a corrupt and violent country. In other times and places this might have been called a Turkish, Italian, Slavic or Spanish stand-off.

  • Ben

    Well some of you seem to forget history a little. Back in the day in the era of the wild west, cowboys, and bandits, mexicans road the wild west from texas to california and northern mexico. A lot of gun fights and confrontations probably lead to standoffs and it probably became famous becasue mexicans and their six shooters ended up in these situations like “mexican standoffs.”

    O and i thought the last paragraph was a bite racist. mexican breakfast? a cigarette and water really? pff i dont know what kind of mexicans you know but the ones i know have feasts for breakfast its delicious.

  • David O.

    I read in a book of Mexican history that during the period of 1821 to 1857 there were many instances of political factions in Mexico City assembling armed mobs and then staring at each other across the plaza for many hours, both sides unwilling to start something, or to pull out. That ended in 1857 with the outbreak of the Reform War.

  • EFREYNOLDS

    just recently I used the phrase “mexican standoff”, I am asking if that is offensive to the Mexican culture because I lived in Juarez for three months and I would never want to offend my people. I am jewish, however, I feel I am not “jewish” but a person of all cultures. Whereever I am I absorb that culture and understand the meaning of community. I have a love of unity so I would never want to say anything to offend any ethnic group. If someone could give me an understanding where that came from I would be grateful. I read all your theorys, however, are there any historians out there?

  • Mexican

    I am a Mexican what Mexican standoff means is that no body wins every body looses is a Mexican trade you may think what ever you want about a Mexican but you do not want to be involve in a Mexican standoof because no body makes it, all ways blow my mind how certain people try to make sense of things that does not have anything to do with them or their culture.

  • Hi, Thaks a lot for sharing, my name is Hector, from Chile. I love the Mexican Culture, I have a Mariachis Group here in Chile

  • Juanita

    I’ve been in a few modern standoffs IN Mexico, and it is true, nobody wins. These are usually minor, involving 2 cars coming from opposite directions on a one-lane road, for example. In one case someone I consider a grown-up man, refused to budge and got out of his car and walked up the hill (trying to have the last word, it would seem). The only problem was he left his two dogs and me in the vehicle, while other cars were piling up behind and everyone yelling to move, but neither car would back up. Finally I left, as the man was walking back down the hill with a baseball bat. You get the picture. In my humble opinion, it is two egos clashing with neither being willing to yield. A no-win situation.

  • Carmen

    The term was used when, in 1865, the armed commerce raider “Shenandoah” of the Confederate States Navy dropped anchor in Hobson’s Bay, Williamstown (Melbourne) and was sliped for repairs to her shaft bearing. On close inspection, it became apparent that the ship had been renamed, its original name “Sea King” not quite obliterated. This ship had intercepted and destroyed 9 ships bound for US ports between Cape Town and Melbourne. Mr Wiliam Blanchard, the US consul based in Melbourne, requested that the Australian Governor Darling cease repair on this ‘pirate’ ship, resulting in 100 fully armed police and militia surrounding and preventing the re-launch of “Shenandoah”. The ship’s captain, Lt Waddel, promptly ordered the guns of his ship to be loaded and trained on Williamstown, causing the immediate official reaction of ordering the guns of Fort Gellibrand (a multiple battery) to be loaded and trained on “Shenandoah”.

  • Jorge

    With all due respect, Carmen, it’s always better to type links or propely quote than to copypast directly from the wiktionary, especially if the uninteresting story has nothing to do with the origin of the expression (it does not mention when or how the term was used). Anyway, according to several comments here, the term was widely used before 1865.
    Even though the origin of the expression is, most likely, unknown, I found the following article quite interesting: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MexicanStandoff

  • Sam Clements

    I think I found the source of the original menaing of “Mexican standoff.”

    http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind1307D&L=ADS-L&P=R2286&I=-3&d=No+Match%3BMatch%3BMatches

    A story from 1876, set in Mexico, in which the meaning was given–”"We will call it a stand-off, a Mexican stand-off, you lose you money, but you save your life!”

  • [...] we need is give and take, and yet, the political Mexican Standoff is most [...]

  • Pedro Henrique

    We all can see a Mexican Standoff in Matrix Revolutions, search for the scene at Club Hel… In a duel, the first to shoot resolves the conflict, thus in a Mexican Standoff the firts to shoot lose the advantage, giving all the chance to the second subject…

  • Ernest

    Mexican standoff. A complex problem where you do not move nor let the other move. Because no body wants to take responsibility nor lose. In Mexico it is said “Ni cacha, ni picha, ni deja batear”. Effectively both parties are stale and no progress is made.

    You can say, whatever you want, but this only reflects how tremendously sensible and brave Mexican, and every other people, gotta be to solve these kind of problems.

    • Ernest

      A revised definition:

      In a standoff both parties are locked. But in a regular standoff, both parties are tie, because they neutralize each other. But in a Mexican standoff, no body is willing to take the first step since all are equally prone to lose something.

      When there is nothing to lose, it is easy to be a hero, but when both parties have a lot to lose, no one wants to be the fool who gave the other the advantage.

      I do not even think that definition has any Mexican particularity since it may well apply to any society in the world!

      In my personal point of view this only reflects how tremendously sensible and brave people, have to be to solve these kind of problems.

  • Miguel

    Having Grown up in a Mexican-American household I have actually heard about the origin of the Mexican standoff. How true it is or not isn’t something I’m willing to bet on but I’ve heard the same version from different older people in the family. It’s actually a topic of interest for me. I have to do a little more research to be sure of all the details but this is what I’ve been told. During one of the many conflicts between Mexico and the U.S. . Mexican Rebels and U.S. military forces came into contact in a small Mexican town on the Mexican-American border. The Mexican Rebels stood on one side of the main street while U.S. forces stood on the opposite. They stood there for hours on end, all the while, no one drew their weapons. The Mexican Rebels led a hard life. Living of the desert and constantly on the move they were used to harsh enviroments and situations. The story goes that there was an exchange of dialogue between leaders at first, then it became a “my penis is bigger than yours battle”. The Mexican Rebels stood there toe to toe with the opposition for approximately 3 days. Waiting to see who would draw first or just retreat. Apparently the last American Soldier could stand no more. The Americans eventually retreated from the Mexican town and met the Rebels on a different battlefield. It’s obviously not a popular American story because they were (for whatever reason) the ones to back down. Again this is the version I’ve always heard and thus “The Mexican Standoff”

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