• impasse •
im-pæs • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A deadlock, stalemate, gridlock, a situation from which no progress may be made. 2. A cul-de-sack, dead-end street, blind alley.
Notes: This word was sneaked from French in broad daylight, undoctored except for the pronunciation. Impasse is still alive and well in French. It has the same two meanings plus a third, "to skip", as in 'to skip a meeting'. It is a lexical orphan in English.
In Play: Impasses are often reached in negotiations: "Referenda provide a way out of the impasse when the House of Commons is at loggerheads with the Lords." They are also possible as the result of everyday quarrels: "The driver of the truck and the policeman reached an impasse that resulted in the truck blocking traffic for three hours."
Word History: Today's Good Word is another swiped whole from French impasse "cul-de-sac; deadlock; something skipped", made out of an assimilated form of in- "not" + passe "a pass", from passer "to pass (by, through)". This word is thought to have been coined by Voltaire as a euphemism for cul-de-sac. If so, he created it from Old French passer "to pass". Passer came to French from Vulgar Latin passare "to step, walk, pass". This word came to be in Latin from PIE petê-/potê- "to spread, stretch", also source of English fathom. In this word we find [p] became [f] and [t] became [th], as expected in Germanic languages, to produce Old English fæðm "the length of the arms spread wide". We also find Danish favn "embrace", Dutch vadem "fathom", and German Faden "fathom". Greek petalon "leaf", whence English petal, also shares the same source because leaves spread and stretch as they grow.
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