Q&A: The origin of the Mexican standoff and Mexican wave

where does the Mexican standoff and Mexican wave come from?
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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, once upon a time in Mexico…

Q: Hi AWC, I thought we could do Mexican this week.

A: Really? Great. Could definitely go for some tacos right now.

Q: Yum. And what’s that dish that’s as hot as four heaters?

A: Fajitas?

Q: Yes, that’s the one.

A: “I don’t like Mexican food,” said no Juan ever!

Q: Nice! Ahem, but actually, I wasn’t talking about doing Mexican food.

A: Oh.

Q: I was actually curious about the origin of two “Mexican” phrases. The “Mexican standoff” and the “Mexican wave”.

A: Not typically seen together.

Q: Can you help?

A: We can. Let’s start with the “Mexican standoff” – which the Macquarie Dictionary curiously describes as “a situation in which two opponents threaten each other loudly but neither makes any attempt to resolve the conflict.” Merriam-Webster clarifies it further as a type of “deadlock” – “a situation in which no one emerges a clear winner.”

Q: What’s an example?

A: Many considered the US-Soviet Cold War a “Mexican standoff” between two nuclear powers. A more day-to-day example might be a workers union and company unable to agree on a pay rise, or simply a child who refuses to go to bed. In these situations, it is synonymous with a “stalemate” – with neither party budging.

Q: So why Mexican?

A: It’s early origins are said to relate to the American-Mexican war of the 1840s, when it was initially used in a rather racist way to describe Mexicans running cowardly from a fair fight. However, by 1876 it had been documented with the more modern confrontational meaning – where neither of two opponents could win if shots were fired.

Q: Wait, I thought a Mexican standoff had more than two people?

A: This style of standoff is attributed to the “Spaghetti Western” movies of the 1960s and 70s – where three people would each point their gun at the other, creating an armed stalemate. However, at the time, they were usually known as “triangular standoffs” or simply “three-way standoffs”

Q: Whoa, time out. Italian food now? Why on earth were they called Spaghetti Westerns?

A: It’s actually quite simple. Low-budget American West movies, starting with the 1964 Clint Eastwood film A Fistful of Dollars, were Italian produced – directed by Italian Sergio Leone with a now-famous score by Ennio Morricone. “Spaghetti” simply was the way to identify how Italian they were!

Q: You mentioned they didn’t call those scenes “Mexican standoffs” though?

A: Correct. It wasn’t until Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film Reservoir Dogs – paying homage to this style of movies with a four-way gun scene – that the term “Mexican standoff” took on this role as a film trope.

Q: But it doesn’t need to involve guns – just some kind of stalemate, yeah?

A: That’s right. In its purest form, it’s a situation where there is no way for any party to achieve victory without themselves losing in some way. But as you can see, even the dictionaries waver somewhat on the exact definition here.

Q: Okay, so what about the Mexican wave?

A: This one is a lot more modern, with fewer guns involved.

Q: Hooray!

A: Anyone who has ever been to or witnessed a major crowd event is likely to have seen a Mexican wave. For what it’s worth, Macquarie Dictionary defines it as “a wavelike motion among spectators at a sporting event, pop concert, etc., achieved by having sections of the crowd sequentially stand and raise their arms, and then sit down again.”

Q: That is indeed a Mexican wave. But again, why “Mexican”? Please tell me it’s not related to volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

A: Thankfully no. A very simple explanation actually. It became a popular thing for the soccer-mad crowds to do in the big stadiums during the 1986 FIFA World Cup. And that year, the World Cup was held in…

Q: … Mexico!

A: Ding ding. Correct. This was the same World Cup that saw Argentina’s Diego Maradona score his famous “Hand of God” goal (essentially an illegal hand-ball in an age before video technology) during the quarter-final against England. Argentina would go on to win the tournament.

Q: Maybe one of the hands being raised in the Mexican wave was also Maradona’s?

A: Perhaps it was.

Q: Anything else to add?

A: Just remember if you need to write these terms, only the “Mexican” needs a capital letter as a proper noun.

Q: So “Mexican standoff” and “Mexican wave”?

A: That’s right. You may see people use caps for both, but it’s not necessary. Also, you can also choose to write “stand-off” with a hyphen, just be consistent.

Q: Well, I think this conversation may have reached its own Mexican standoff. I’m suddenly hungry for tacos and spaghetti…

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