In a Word: When Deadlines Were Dire

Deadlines got you stressed out? The consequences of going past a deadline today aren’t nearly as dire as they were with the original “deadline.”

Businessman running from a lit bomb. Bomb has a clock face on it, signifying an imposing deadline.

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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.”


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  1. Thanks for this feature on the origin of the word/term ‘deadline’, and how it morphed into a combination of ‘dateline’ and ‘timeline’ in which something (usually work) HAD to be completed or turned in by. The brutality of the Civil War continues to shock to this day. I’m glad the term was reinvented for something less serious, at least physically. Financially though, missing a deadline has different repercussions ranging from serious to disastrous both corporately and personally. Speaking of the term ‘dateline’, that reminds me of the TV newsmagazine ‘Dateline’ which (in the ’90s) was an excellent program with Jane Pauley. She even had that neat dateline timeline. (“Was it 1957, 1958 or 1959? The answer after these messages.”) For years now that program has just been a murder-mystery show having nothing to do with exposing wrong doing other than within that context, and the dates and times associated with that. Just pointing this out as a more recent example of how these words have been redefined to fit this program’s very different, yet predictable format. Let’s see here, Andy: the husband had a huge life insurance policy taken our on his wife (recent of course), takes her out on his boat/yacht, and oh no, she drowns! The wife’s sisters and girlfriends (camera closeup)were always afraid something like this would happen; never liked or trusted the husband, but never said anything eiher! OR… the husband “discovers” wife’s stabbed body in their bed and is perfectly calm in his 911 call; no emotion. Again, bring in the recent life insurance factor and the wife’s crying sisters and girlfriends. Maybe though this time, he had a girlfriend on the side or suspects she was seeing another man. These scenarios cover about 2/3 of any given ‘Dateline’ episode. It’s a road well traveled on “20/20” also, but not nearly as much. After John Stossel left IT in 2009, its never been the same. ‘Dateline’ could really be doing a public service by reviving the ‘To Catch a Predator’ spinoff series once again, to help keep children safe from online perverts that would come to their homes then get busted. That was around 2006/2007. There’s a new generation of kids (and parents)that need to be aware of it. With NBC however, I wouldn’t count on anything anymore. A TOTALLY useless network except for the news and the Olympics every other year.


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