What do the following phrases have in common: Due date, Editor’s concern, End point, Freelancer’s problem, Time limit, and Zero hour?
Answer: They have all been used as clues in crossword puzzles for the answer DEADLINE.
Once upon a time, as I was fretting over a certain deadline, someone asked me where in the world the word deadline came from. Good questions. Good enough to build an entire column around, I thought.
I am indebted to several sources for the following explanation. Among them, OneLook Dictionary Search, The Word Detective, and a few other sources that are easily accessible online. (Specific allusion to those who do research for a living is my way of saying that I did not make this up. Not to mention insurance against claims of plagiarism.)
Deadline had been a favorite word of mine for some time. I had actually threatened for years to use it as the basis of a crossword theme. Like wordplay, deadline is an obvious compound word and is enhanced by the even 4-4 split as to the letters of its two component parts.
Anyone who has ever worked in journalism, or been close to someone who has, understands that a deadline is a time when a piece of writing must be submitted, so that it may be printed in the publication to which the deadline applies—traditionally, a certain edition of a newspaper. My research indicates that deadline was first used in this context around 1920. It caught on quickly and moved into general usage with the connotation of any ironclad time limit by which something must be done.
In a The Word Detective piece from some years ago, I find the following:
“I had always assumed, as I am sure many writers do, that ‘deadline’ arose simply as shorthand for the probability that if you missed one, your editor would kill you. In researching the term, however, I discovered that ‘deadline’ has a far more literal and grisly history.
“During the American Civil War, the guards at the notoriously brutal Confederate military prison at Andersonville drew a line on the ground around the perimeter of the compound, a uniform 17 feet inside the prison walls. Any prisoner crossing over that line was presumed to be trying to reach the wall in order to escape, and was summarily shot.
“This boundary was known succinctly as ‘the dead line.’ The first appearance in print of this original sense of ‘deadline’ came in the Congressional Record in 1864.”
Oxford Dictionaries provides the following two noun definitions:
“1. The latest time or date by which something should be completed” and
“2. (historical) A line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot.”
Dictionary.com indicates that deadline may also be a transitive verb, meaning “To govern by setting a time limit,” offering as an example “He was never going to be deadlined by a day, or even a month” (citing, in this regard The New Yorker) and listing deadlined, deadlining and deadlines as legitimate verbs.
So, I guess we are done here. And the good news is that I am way ahead of deadline.
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.