Where does the word deadline come from?

You may have noticed, at least once this email popped into your inbox, that I didn’t send it around the typical weekend timing. I had a large deadline recently and had to drop the ball in a few places. But that got me thinking: why do we have such a violent word — deadline — for the relatively innocuous concept of time limit?

It turns out the word’s roots are more literal than metaphorical: it was first popularized in American prisons during the Civil War. Literal demarcations were created as “do-not-cross” lines; prisoners risked getting shot if they attempted to do so. If you’re picturing large, sturdy prison walls and wondering why a line created outside them received much attention, remember this was the 1860s; especially in the south, confederate prisons were more like shoddy, enclosed encampments (typically called “stockades”). “What constituted the deadline varied widely from prison to prison” and included “a low rail fence,” “a series of stakes with rope tied between them” and “an embankment and trench.”

Now, the jump straight from prison, life-threatening lines to homework assignment or powerpoint deck due date seems a bit extreme.

Although we don’t know if and how Civil War days influenced this, there is another, latter use of the word that offers a more logical transition. Around the turn of the century, mass media — and therefore printing — was rapidly growing. “An imaginary line near the edge of a paper beyond which the printing press could not print anything” was also called a “deadline”; soon enough, this “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.” Time limits became increasing maniacal in publishing and newspaper companies, so this “time after which material would not make it into a newspaper or periodical” was a catalyst for “deadline” to become standard corporate speak…eventually everywhere.

I’d be surprised that this dramatic term stuck, but then I remember I often spoke of financial products “bleeding” assets and business tactics that were “double-edged swords.”

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