Until the US government shutdown ended earlier this week, with the signing of a short-term spending bill, it was widely said to be in “deadlock”. That is at least better than “stalemate”, because in chess, stalemate instantly ends the game. But what have locks got to do with political contests?
The name “dead lock” (or deadbolt), for a lock without a spring keeping the bolt in place, dates from 1866, but “dead lock” had already been used for a century to describe “a state of affairs in which it is impossible to proceed or act; a complete stand‑still” (OED).
“Dead” here means absolutely or thoroughly, as in “to a dead certainty”. The novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne later wrote of a traffic jam of market carts in the street as a “dead-lock”, and political deadlocks were all over American political commentary by the late 19th century.
Recently there have been reports of deadlocks not only in the United States but in Germany and Nigeria, and also in football matches. But perhaps, like stalemate, the term is routinely misapplied – because if it proved possible to continue after all, it wasn’t really a deadlock in the first place.
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