At a Crossroads

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A reader is confused about this expression:

Kindly explain the usage and difference, if any, of “at a crossroad,” “at crossroads” and similar phrases.

Literally, a crossroad is a road that crosses another. “A crossroad” is the place where two or more roads intersect. “A crossroads” is also the place where roads intersect.

In remote areas where roads lack signage, travelers at an unfamiliar intersection are faced with a directional decision that could have unpleasant consequences if they choose incorrectly.

Figuratively, to be “at a crossroad” or “at a crossroads” is to be at a stage in one’s life–or the development of a country or an industry–when it is necessary to choose a course of action that will affect one’s future in significant and irrevocable ways. Both the singular and plural forms are seen, but the Google Ngram Viewer indicates that the plural form is more common.

The expression is popular with writers who compose headlines and book titles:

Trucking Industry at a Crossroads

Cuba: Island at a Crossroad

The Caspian Region at a Crossroad: Challenges of a New Frontier of Energy

Global Health Governance at a Crossroads

Cancer research at a crossroads in Germany

Writers of novels and memoirs are also fond of it:

I think you will agree that life’s plans are not always tied up in neat little packages. Occasionally we find ourselves at unexpected crossroads with more than one opportunity from which to choose. –Linda Lee Chaikin

I see myself at crossroads in my life, mapless, lacking bits of knowledge – then, the Moon breaks through, lights up the path before me… –John Geddes

And having once chosen, never to seek to return to the crossroads of that decision-for even if one chooses wrongly, the choice cannot be unmade. –Jacqueline Carey

To be at a crossroads is to be on the verge of making a decision:

We stand at an absolutely pivotal crossroads in our nation’s history that may well determine our future and way of life for decades to come.

Three idioms that refer to the moment after the decision has been made are:

1. to cross the Rubicon
This expression means to make an irrevocable decision. Its figurative meaning comes from Julius Caesar’s literal crossing of a small Italian river in 49 BCE. By leading an army across the Rubicon–the boundary between Gaul and Italy–Caesar disobeyed Roman law and began a civil war. Crossing the Rubicon is final. That’s the whole point of the expression. The following quotation suggests that the speaker doesn’t quite understand that once the Rubicon is crossed, there’s no turning back:

I think the Port Authority, from a transparency/media point of view, has crossed the Rubicon as the result of recent controversies and it’s not going to be possible to re-cross it.

2. casting the die
According to Suetonius, once he had crossed the Rubicon, Caesar said “Alea iacta est!” The Latin is usually translated as “The die is cast.” Die is the singular of dice. In those days, dice were used for gambling, but also for determining the will of the gods. Either way, once the dice have been thrown, the outcome has been determined.

Example: “The Die is Cast: Russia’s Intentions in Ukraine”

3. no turning back
The phrasal verb “turn back” means “to reverse the course of” or “to cause to go in the opposite direction.” Example: “For open government, there is absolutely no turning back.”

In addition to representing a place where a crucial decision is made, a crossroad has sinister associations in history and in folklore.

A place where two roads crossed was often chosen as the site of pre-Christian sacrifice. Recipes for black magic often include directions to bury something at a crossroads at midnight. Gallows were placed at a crossroads. The bodies of the executed–especially those of highwaymen–were left hanging as a warning.

Suicides and others for whom Christian burial in consecrated ground was forbidden were buried at a crossroads.

Related post: One Die, Two Dice

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1 thought on “At a Crossroads”

  1. I wonder why people feel compelled to write “signage” when “signs” is shorter and sweeter.

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