Why is a standoff between three parties that are all enemies of each other called a 'Mexican standoff'?

What is so 'Mexican' about it?

  • The relevant Wikipedia entry implies the answer to this one is Nobody knows for certain, so I'm closevoting as POB. Apr 10, 2017 at 17:13
  • @FumbleFingers before joining you in that I'd like to see input from a wider range of references. It may be that no one with access to the right source has got round to editing the article.
    – Chris H
    Apr 10, 2017 at 18:36
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers I can't follow this. Does the OED mean that "a standoff between 3 parties that are all enemies of each other" is an "inferior, fraudulent, or makeshift quality" standoff? How is it inferior, fraudulent, or makeshift quality?
    – Chaim
    May 3, 2017 at 19:56
  • 1
    @Chaim: Neither the OED nor dictionary.com as cited in Josh's answer include any reference to the specific (spaghetti western / Reservoir Dogs-based?) sense of a standoff involving more than two parties. They just say that lots of things can be (insultingly) described as "Mexican" to imply "inferior, not the real thing". For example, there might be a "real" political/military standoff between the US and Russia - but if we make it a three-way (with China also involved), that could be called a Mexican standoff because it's a "non-standard" situation. May 4, 2017 at 15:38
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers But I don't see how this reaches the question. The question was why a three-way standoff is called a Mexican standoff.
    – Chaim
    May 4, 2017 at 18:50

4 Answers 4


Mexican standoff: noun, (Informal: Sometimes Offensive.)

  • a stalemate or impasse; a confrontation that neither side can win.

Usage note

  • This expression is sometimes perceived as insulting to or by Mexicans. Its origin in the late 19th century may be connected to American perceptions of encounters with Mexican bandits of that era.


The origin, according to the following source the expression is just one of the many along the line of similar AmE slang expressions that use the term Mexican as a slur:

  • 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.

(The Word Detective)

Early usage examples:

1876 March 19, F. Harvey Smith, “Mexican Stand-Off”, in Sunday Mercury, New York, page 2/col. 5:

  • “Go-!” said he sternly then. “We will call it a stand-off, a Mexican stand-off, you lose your money, but you save your life!”

1891 September, N.Y. Sporting Times, volume 19, page 4/col. 3:

  • ‘Monk’ Cline, who got a Mexican stand-off from Dave Rowe has signed with Louisville.


  • 1
    It is somewhat puzzling why the OP has accepted this answer. As has already been pointed by @Chaim, in the comments on the question, it is not obvious why a three-party standoff (which is the specific sense of the phrase that the question is about) would be regarded as a 'fraudulent, inferior' version of a standoff; if anything, it seems to be more complex than an ordinary, two-party standoff.
    – jsw29
    Jan 23, 2021 at 21:31

I am from Northern Mexico and it's called Mexican standoff because Bandidos and Vaqueros have been doing it even before America was even a country. We later taught the cowboys how to do it.

  • 3
    Interesting answer. Not entirely grammatical, but that aside, it would be useful if you'd tell us more, and provide some documentation--a reference to a history book or article about the Bandidos and Vaqueros--where do the 3 parties come in?
    – Xanne
    May 3, 2017 at 20:49

In Mexico these standoff were common among the bandits, Vaqueros, charros, chinacos and pistoleros. it was a way of settling a problem amongst two or more people. Furthermore, it was a matter of pride, proving their masculinity by demonstrating that victory could be achived without backstabbing, cheating or cawarding away; a fair way that granted both parties the opportunity to stand face-to-face and gamble their life by relying on their speed and agility as well as accuracy with their gun. In the majority of the cases it was between two men that had come to agreement to settle their dispute in this "manly and uncowardly" manner. Unlike in many american movies where everyone had their guns drawn, in el duelo de pistoleros ( "mexican standoff") also know as duelo a la mexicana, punto muerto or tablas mexicanas; both parties stood face to face with their gun in their holster waiting for the right opportunity to draw their gun without allowing their opponent to draw and shot first. In in the United States, this behavior became known as mexican standoff. This wasn't an isolated case as much of the Spanish / Mexican terminally was adopted and evolved as more and more anglo americans moved in to the territories that were acquired from Mexico. Over time, due to the immense discrimination and the dehumanization of the Mexican people (as they were seen inferior), many of the aspects that characterize them as brave or manly were changed or morph giving them a derogatory meaning as a way to dehumanize and further discriminate the Mexicans.

  • 1
    Welcome to EL&U. While you lay out an interesting case, your answer would be greatly strengthened if you could provide a reliable reference or two to support it. Many words and expressions grow folk etymologies that are repeated carelessly; here we strive to get to the truth of the matter.
    – choster
    Jul 10, 2018 at 3:38
  • 1
    The answer speaks of 'both parties' to the standoff and explicitly states that 'in the majority of the cases it was between two men'. This indicates that the answer is about something different from what the question is about, which is 'a standoff between three parties'.
    – jsw29
    Jan 23, 2021 at 21:17

I was told the origin was in fact is a popular, perhaps apocryphal, Mexican story that used to be told to children, involving two wealthy and powerful persons' carriages (Spanish or French noblemen) which, from opposite ends, entered a narrow street through which only one carriage could pass. Convinced that to concede the right-of-way to the other would mean a loss of face and status, the owner of each carriage refused to give way for days, sending servants for food, drink and bedpans; after a long period of time the situation became ludicrous and both carriage owners made such fools of themselves, that both had lost status and face.

The moral of the story was a sensible one, that at times someone has to move to resolve a ludicrous situation - and that more face can be lost by not conceding than by insisting.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.