Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
We’ve all missed deadlines before. It can be embarrassing, it can be costly, and it can even get you fired. But none of those results even comes close to what might befall someone who crossed the original deadline.
Deadline traces back to prisoner-of-war camps in the South during the American Civil War — perhaps originally to the horrific prisoner camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Supplies were limited by the war, and barbed wire hadn’t even been invented yet, so there was only so much prison administrators could do to prevent POWs from escaping. They put up walls and fences, but to make it harder for soldiers to slip out, they also established a line on the ground about 20 feet in. Any prisoner who crossed that line was subject to being shot by the Confederate guards.
It was a literal deadline: You cross it, you die.
Around the turn of the century, as printing technology was expanding, deadline returned. Etymologists aren’t positive whether or not the Civil War deadline influenced the printing deadline, which was an imaginary line near the edge of a paper beyond which the printing press could not print anything. Regardless, it wasn’t long before that line on a physical page beyond which work cannot go took a metaphorical turn and became a line in time beyond which work cannot go.
Today’s deadlines are not so dire as they once were. As the novelist Douglas Adams famously wrote, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”