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.