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But how is that different from a plain stand-off? I've always understood "Mexican standoff" to mean "everybody shot dead".

That's a good point there really isn't a lot of difference between a "standoff" and a "Mexican standoff."
No, it doesn't mean "everybody shot dead."
Merriam-Webster has:
Main Entry: Mexican standoff
Date: 1891
a situation in which no one emerges a clear
winner; also : DEADLOCK
Main Entry: standoff
Date: circa 1835

1 a : TIE, DEADLOCK b : a counterbalancing effect
You could say that two sports teams battled to a standoff, and no guns are involved there. But if you described a Mexican standoff in a movie scene, it would, to me, imply the guns (or some threatening equivalent)
pointing at each other, and everyone frozen, just as Tony described.

A random Web hit:
Both men stood no more than four feet apart.
Both had guns out and pointed at one another. ...
Neither man dared fire, for fear of causing the other to do so at the same time. Both wished to kill the other, but not at the price of killing themselves. Julio Rodriguez broke into a grim smile. "What we have ourselves here," he said in a heat-parched voice, "is what's called a Mexican Standoff, gringo."
Sergeant Hudson's lips twitched. "You could say that."
The descriptions get something across that the definitions don't. A standoff is impersonal and can be done at a distance. The fighters can decide to engage in battle that morning, or play pinochle back in their tents instead.
A Mexican Standoff is up close and personal.
A major part of the meaning for me hasn't been mentioned yet. We get to the part where both parties would really rather be back at home swinging their kids around but how do they disengage with all of these pointed guns? It is not enough to make a verbal agreement; remember, these people all want the other side dead. If one side backs away in the wrong direction, the other side can take cover and open fire without the disincentive of having a gun pointed at their head. If they withdraw in the open, one side may have rifles accurate to 150 yards while the other side's rifles are only accurate to 100 yards.
While they are working that out at the close range stage, if a single gun fires, then they all do; and everyone is dead. The threat is there even if everyone is willing to go home now and try again later.
Richard Maurer To reply, remove half
Sunnyvale, California of a homonym of a synonym for also.
say infinitely "Mexican the

My understanding of a "Mexican standoff" is when two parties ... has. Unlike a firing squad, the result is no action.

But how is that different from a plain stand-off?

It's not if both sides discontinue any aggressive action towards the other. It's just a more colorful way of saying "stand off".
I've always understood "Mexican standoff" to mean "everybody shot dead". CDB

I don't think many people share this understanding. I know I don't.
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say firing infinitely "Mexican the

My understanding of a "Mexican standoff" is when two parties ... has. Unlike a firing squad, the result is no action.

But how is that different from a plain stand-off? I've always understood "Mexican standoff" to mean "everybody shot dead". CDB

I've always heard and understood it in the same sense as Tony Cooper's: in a "Mexican standoff", the opponents are in such a position that neither can advance or retreat without being exposed to withering fire. I've heard it given out as 19th-C., possibly relating to the campaign to subdue the Comancheros in New Mexico, but the substantiation for that is slim. Somebody who's read up on New Mexico history may be able to offer more.

Chris Green
A standoff might be advantageous for one of the parties. A Mexican standoff never is. If you're trying to get ... away, which is what I want. In a Mexican standoff, both sides back down and neither gets what it wants.

I've always understood "Mexican standoff" to mean "everybody shot dead". CDB

I've never heard it used that way. It's more "nobody gets shot because everybody knows they'll be shot if they start shooting, so they all just go away".

So it's like the Cold War MAD - mutually assured destruction?

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A standoff might be advantageous for one of the parties. ... both sides back down and neither gets what it wants.

(snip)
So it's like the Cold War MAD - mutually assured destruction?

Yes and no. Nobody goes into a situation desiring a Mexican standoff, but MAD was an actual strategy, with both sides feeling that the safety that it gave them was a desirable end in and of itself.

Another way to look at it is that in a Mexican standoff, each side says "I want to do X, but I can't do that because if I try, they'll do Y to me", while with MAD, each side says "They want to do Y to me, but they won't if they believe that I'll do X to them if they try." The result is the same (neither does anything), but the motives and the feeling of success or failure is different.

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