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Force majeure

The French loan phrase force majeure (meaning, literally, greater force) has two meanings in English: (1) superior or overpowering force, and (2) an unexpected or uncontrollable event. The latter sense is used more often.

Force majeure is most often used in legal contexts, usually in reference to events that are beyond a person’s or company’s control. A force majeure clause of a contract outlines the extreme conditions under which one or both parties may be freed from obligation or liability. One invokes force majeure to clear oneself of liability or to get out of a contract, sometimes only temporarily.

Force majeure generally functions as a noun, though it also works as a phrasal adjective preceding a noun (e.g., force majeure events). Although force majeure has been in English for a long time, it’s still relatively unknown outside the field of law, so it can go either italicized or unitalicized.

Examples

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These writers use force majeure in its legal sense:

Libya declared force majeure on all oil product exports as political violence shut more than 8 percent of the country’s 1.6 million barrels per day of crude production. [Reuters]

If the Bahrain organisers are covered by insurance, it is difficult to know whether that would work in a force majeure situation. [Telegraph]

At least six major global coal miners have declared force majeure, which means they can miss contractual shipments because of circumstances out of their control. [Forbes]

And here’s a rare example of force majeure used to mean superior or overpowering force:

Irish firepower proves unequal to force majeure of Les Bleus [Irish Times]

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