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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 ... 

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