Q: I’m curious if/when “dead end” replaced “cul de sac” as a street with an entrance but no outlet. Is this traditionally an American usage?
A: No, “dead end” is not an Americanized version of “cul-de-sac.” In the US as well as the UK, either term can refer to a street that’s closed at one end.
When the two expressions first appeared in English, “dead end” was a plumbing term for the closed end of a pipe, while “cul-de-sac” was an anatomical term for a pouch branching off a hollow organ like an intestine. Each term later developed the sense of a street with no outlet.
English borrowed the oldest of the two terms, “cul de sac,” from French, where it meant “bottom of a sack” literally and “street without exit” figuratively.
The English usage first appeared in an 18th-century medical treatise, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In this passage, it describes an abnormal pouch, or diverticulum, near where the colon joins the abdominal wall:
“An Infundibuliform [funnel-shaped] Cul de Sac or Thimble-like cavity” (from “Miscellaneous Remarks on the Intestines,” by Alexander Monro, in Medical Essays and Observations, 1738).
In the early 19th century, the term took on the sense of “a street, lane, or passage closed at one end, a blind alley; a place having no outlet except by the entrance,” the OED says.
However, the earliest OED example uses the term figuratively in describing the difficulty of sending a diplomatic letter by courier from Palermo:
“This is such a cul de sac that it would (be) ridiculous to attempt sending you any news. Perhaps, indeed, from Malta you might receive it as fresh from hence as any other place” (from a letter written May 10, 1800, by Sir Arthur Paget to Sir Charles Whitworth, and published in The Paget Papers, 1896, edited by Sir Augustus Paget).
The first Oxford citation for the street sense is from an April 19, 1828, entry in The Journal of Sir Walter Scott (1941), edited by John Guthrie Tate: “Coming home, an Irish coachman drove us into a cul de sac, near Battersea Bridge.”
(Although cul de sac can still mean a dead-end street in French, the more common terms are impasse and voie sans issue.)
The expression “dead end” showed up two decades later, in the mid-19th century. The OED defines it as “a closed end of a water-pipe, passage, etc., through which there is no way.”
The earliest examples we’ve found are in an 1851 report to the General Board of Health in London on the sewers, drains, and water supples of Halifax in Yorkshire.
The term is used here in a description of a drain: “No. 6 a branches from No. 6 at the upper end of the bridge, and passes by the churchyard, where it terminates in a dead end.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries “dead end” developed several figurative senses, such as a policy, plan, or road that leads nowhere.
The earliest figurative example we’ve seen is from an anonymous 1874 pamphlet, “A Voice From the Signal Box: or Railway Accidents and Their Causes,” by “a Signalman.”
The author suggests that the trains of engine drivers who ignore signals at dangerous junctions should be forced “into a dead end, blocked up with ballast, and interlocked with the main line signals.”
The earliest roadway example we’ve found refers to the end of a road: “Franklin street from Washington avenue south to dead end” (from a March 27, 1901, Philadelphia ordinance to repave several roads).
Finally, “dead end” here refers to an entire road: “Cannon Street is a dead end—it don’t lead nowhere” (from “An Eddy of War,” a short story by Charles Vickers and Ernest Swinton in Blackwood’s Magazine, April 1907).