The Grammarphobia Blog

We’re on deadline

Q: I was thumbing through my M-W 11 for the fun of it (I’m easily entertained) when I noticed  that the first definition of “deadline” in the dictionary is “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.” Whoa! I thought a deadline was when something must be done. Why is that only the second definition?

A: The next time you thumb through your dictionary, take a moment to look at the explanatory notes at the beginning. This may not be the most entertaining part of the dictionary, but it has its attractions.

You’ll learn, for example, that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists its definitions in historical order, not in order of popularity.

We’ve written about “deadline” in our book Origins of the Specious. It’s in a section about old words that have lost their original meanings and are now used figuratively.

The original deadline, it turns out, was a four-foot-high fence that defined the no-man’s-land inside the walls around the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, GA, during the Civil War.

Any captive Union soldiers who crossed the deadline were shot.

The word first appeared in an inspection report written in August 1864 by a Confederate officer, Lieut. Col. D. T. Chandler: “A railing around the inside of the stockade and about 20 feet from it constitutes the ‘dead-line,’ beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass.”

After the war ended in 1865, Capt. Henry Wirtz, the commandant of the camp, was tried and hanged for war crimes.

Not until the early 20th century did “deadline” come to mean a time limit. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is in the title of a play about the newspaper business, Deadline at Eleven (1920).

This usage may have been influenced by a somewhat earlier sense of the word: a guideline marked on the bed of a printing press.

These days, as we all know, journalists aren’t the only ones with deadlines to meet.

Check out our books about the English language