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Unless one has grown up with it, I cannot see that the intent of "dead end" on a road sign is at all obvious. The oft-used alternative "no outlet" at least means what it says. And while a non-native English speaker might have difficulty with "no outlet" I suspect that it could be looked up in an English-to-x dictionary, but "dead end"? I think not. So why did "dead end" come to mean that the end of a road is imminent?

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closed as general reference by Mark Beadles, Gnawme, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, Mahnax, Matt Эллен Aug 28 '12 at 9:37

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

No outlet and dead end don't mean the same thing. No outlet means that you can't get back to the main road by continuing in this direction. Dead end means there are no more turns off this road. –  mhoran_psprep Aug 25 '12 at 23:40
etymonline.com/… –  Jim Aug 26 '12 at 1:38

2 Answers 2

OED 1 s.v. Dead D.2. gives a first citation of the phrase in 1886, with respect to closed water pipes, and in 1889 with a sense approximating the ordinary modern use: "G. Findlay Eng.Railway 199 This is what is termed a 'dead-end' warehouse .. the waggons come in and go out the same way, and cannot be taken through the warehouse."

The definition offered here is "a closed end of a water-pipe, passage, etc., through which there is no way." This evidently derives from ibid. "IV. Without motion (relatively or absolutely)".

I trust that the metaphorical extension of dead is obvious. We speak of dead air, dead water, dead calm, a dead stop; a wire is live if it carries a current, dead if it does not. The dead center of a rotating object is the axis point about which it revolves, at which there is no motion. Dead weight is the weight of an inert, i.e. unmoving body. A deadlock is a struggle in which neither party can 'move' the other.

So a dead end street is one through which traffic cannot move.

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Although the engineering term from the same era is 'blind' as in blind hole, blind rivet and we have "blind alley" rather than dead-alley –  mgb Aug 26 '12 at 5:39
@mgb fersher. Any base term can be productive of metaphor - which very quickly becomes (in a different sense) 'dead metaphor'. . . Oh, and against your 'blind rivet' I left out 'deadbolt'. –  StoneyB Aug 26 '12 at 15:07
interesting that not being able to see/go through is 'blind' in a hole and alley but "dead-end" not "blind-end". Dead in all the other meanings makes sense. –  mgb Aug 26 '12 at 15:31

The term 'dead-end' may have originated during the time of ancient Rome in which streets were planned for defense purposes. If an enemy entered a 'dead-end' street, they would be trapped with no escape, and would be easy targets for defending troops. Leon Battista Alberti writes during the 15th century that

“The Ancients in All Towns were for having some intricate Ways and turn again Streets [i.e.dead-ends or loops], without any Passage through them, that if an Enemy comes into them, he may be at a Loss, and be in Confusion and Suspense; or if he pushes on daringly, may be easily destroyed

See Leon Battista Alberti, Ten Books on Architecture, 1485, ed. James Rykwert(New York: Transatlantic Arts, 1966) Book IV, Ch. V. 75 cited on Wikipedia.

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The concept of a "dead-end" street is different from the use of the term "dead-end" to describe them. –  bib Aug 26 '12 at 2:22

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