Why we dread the deadline

Deadline offers a rare case in which the popular etymology of a word turns out to be accurate. Originally it was a line that promised death if you went over it.

Steve Marcus/Reuters
A man types into a keyboard during the Def Con hacker convention in Las Vegas, Nevada on July 29, 2017.

When I’m not writing this column, I’m working on a book, and I’ve got a deadline. I feel as though a sword of Damocles is hanging over me. I’m under Edgar Allen Poe’s pendulum, and every tick of the clock brings its blade closer. I’m far from the only writer to feel that deadline is too close to the literal, that something terrible will happen if I cross that line. 

Deadline offers a rare case in which the popular etymology of a word turns out to be accurate. Originally it was a line that promised death if you went over it. In the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp known as Andersonville, guards built a railing 15 to 20 feet inside the stockade wall. A Union prisoner recalls that “if this was crossed, or even touched, the guards would fire upon the offender without warning.” An account from “the Southern perspective” claims that guards warned inmates if they got too close to the line, but both sides agree that men were shot for crossing the “dead line.” 

After Andersonville, deadline came to be used metaphorically of other dangerous boundaries. An 1884 article describes the deadline between good health and indigestion, where “a single dish of the most wholesome food” might push a person to the wrong side.

As millions of young people left the working world and joined the armed forces in World War I, “the age deadline” became a subject of public debate. Until the war forced companies to rely more on older workers, men on the wrong side of the line – 40 to 45 years of age or with gray hair, whichever came first – were less employable, and likely to find themselves “thrown upon the scrap heap in middle life,” as the Saturday Evening Post put it. The war offered an opportunity to reevaluate what we would now call age discrimination, or ageism, but it did not solve the problem. Many charge that the age deadline that existed in industry before World War I is still in force in today’s tech world.

By the 1920s, deadline had acquired its primary contemporary meaning: the time by which something must be completed. People began to “miss” or “make” deadlines, not cross them.    

Journalists and other writers seem to have been the first to use the word this way and pointed out how ominous it sounds from the get-go. In 1928, a writer at the Chicago Tribune explained: “Deadline. The word has a gruesome sound.... [T]he man who is writing or editing a last minute story, with one eye cocked to watch the hands of the clock inching along with frightful speed to the deadline time, feels it to be something dreadful indeed.” I couldn’t agree more!    

Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking ... 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why we dread the deadline
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today