Who Put the “Dead” in “Deadline?”

While trying to meet a recent deadline, I hit a bit of a roadblock in my rewrite. I needed to come up with a story fix, and fast. So I did what any self-respecting writer would do. I procrastinated.

I’ve found that etymology is a great way to stall. Exploring the origin of words gives you the illusion of working, hence less guilt. Since I was dealing with a deadline, I decided to mosey online and explore where that word came from. What I discovered surprised me.

I always figured that it was some forties, newspaper-y term. You know, where a guy in a fedora yells at another guy, “Hey, chump, you’re dead if you don’t get me another line about the mook that the cops sent to the hoosegow!”

I was wrong. The word had its origins in the Civil War’s notorious Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp.

The place was hell on earth. Thirty percent of prisoners died, with one hundred dying a day during the summer of 1864. Here’s an explanation of Andersonville’s “dead line” from historyspaces.blogspot.com:

The most notable characteristic of the prison was a small trench dug into the ground inside the stockade 17′ (some sources say 19′) from the log fence. If any prisoner wandered across this very shallow furrow/line the guards in the previously mentioned towers (“pigeon roosts”) had standing orders to shoot to kill. Even if a prisoner accidentally stumbled across this barrier the guards shot him dead. This shallow line in the ground became known by the prisoners as the “deadline.” Later, in parts of the prison camp, a simple fence was erected to mark the spot of this barrier. But, fence or not, the “deadline” was a very serious fact of life for those held in the camp.

Ouch! Not at all what I expected. But as it turns out, I was only partially wrong. The term was co-opted by newspapers in the 1920s to mean “a time limit.” So fedora-clad guys on rotary phones in newsrooms did indeed bark “Deadline!” at each other.

I went back to my project and finished it within my “time limit.” But let me tell you, if you’re feeling sorry for yourself about the possibility of missing a deadline, there’s nothing like a little American history and a 150-year-old photo of brutalized prisoners of war to put it in perspective.

I look forward to researching a less depressing word the next time I procrastinate. Like, “procrastinate.”

3 thoughts on “Who Put the “Dead” in “Deadline?”

  1. Bonus point for the use of “hoosegow!”

    Research is one of my favorite procrastination tactics. I learned a LOT about the Hollywood Blacklist just last night instead of doing… anything productive. (I did eventually write 250 words before realizing that character knows more than the reader can at the moment… and I changed the tense in one more chapter of the ms I’m technically querying… TMI, I know but it helps me to stay on track. 😉

    Another fun fact, I did a huge research project on the 1920 in high school and more modern slang than you’d think comes out of the twenties.

    Liked by 2 people

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