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A situation whose outcome is in extremely suspenseful doubt until the last moment. The term comes from serialized adventure films popular in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, in which, at the end of each installment, the hero or heroine is left in a very dangerous situation, sometimes literally dangling from a cliff. The rationale, of course, was to entice the audience to return for the next installment in order to see what happened. By the 1940s the term was being transferred to other suspenseful states of affairs—for example, “the election was a cliff-hanger.”