“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
As students and academics (and general inhabitants of Planet Earth), deadlines plague our existence. CFPs, essays, book proposals, marking, funding applications, and—to my recent distress—Her Majesty’s tax returns. They all have a desired delivery date, and whether it’s mardy students or £100 fines, missing that date tends to have consequences.
Dispensing witticisms à la Adams is our—and, judging by your tweets, your—general approach to deadlines. But say it slowly and the word’s dark past is thrown into sharp relief: dead lines.
Most etymologists tend to agree that “deadline” has its roots in the American Civil War (1861-1865), referring to the conditions in which prisoners of war were detained.
Naval Historian David A. Kelly, Jr. puts its earliest use in writing on 10 May 1864. In an inspection report for Andersonville, a hugely overpopulated prison in Georgia during the war, the Confederate Captain Walter Bowie wrote that:
On the inside of the stockade and twenty feet from it there is a dead-line established, over which no prisoner is allowed to go, day or night, under penalty of being shot.
Christine Ammer points to a similar use later that year. On 5 July Colonel D. T. Chandler reported the following, also on Andersonville:
The Federal prisoners of war are confined within a stockade 15 feet high, of roughly hewn pine logs, about 8 inches in diameter, inserted 5 feet into the ground, enclosing, including the recent extension, an area of 540 by 260 yards. A railing around the inside of the stockade, and about 20 feet from it, constitutes the “deadline,” beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass… [as a large portion is] at present unfit for occupation… [this] gives somewhat less than 6 square feet to each prisoner…
That the notion spread beyond Andersonville, GA, is attested by other accounts from prisons across the US. At Union Prison, Rock Island, IL, for example, Private John Cowherd was interviewed about the shooting of an inmate.
Question. What was the prisoner doing at the time he was shot at by the sentry at post No. 13?
Answer. Lying flat on his belly scratching under the fence.
Question. About what time do you think this occurred, and at what place?
Answer. About 11.30, on post No. 13, fourth front, Rock Island Prison Barracks, Ill., on the night of the 24th of October.
Question. What were your instructions?
Answer. To let no man come across the dead-line. If he did, halt him three times, and if he did not stop shoot him; and if he got across before I saw him shoot him without halting.
Indeed the idea was so widespread that by 1889, P. A. Bruce could use the term figuratively. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the “dead-line” Bruce writes of applies to the racial conflicts of late C19th America. In The Plantation Negro as Free Man, Bruce speaks of the racial segregation, and the opines of the white:
No one is more conscious than he of this underlying sentiment in the hearts of the white people; he knows very well that beneath the surface of their kindness to him, even when it takes the form of the most open and sincere affection, there lurks an active and resolute sensitiveness that would rise in alarm the instant he sought, unwittingly or intentionally, to cross the social dead-line.
The dead-line, then, was simply a line that should not be crossed.
Less darkly (and perhaps more apt for writers), deadline emerged as a technical term in printing in the early C20th. In his Printing for School and Shop (1917), Frank S. Henry warned:
If the chase is one that just fits the bed of the press, make certain that the type does not come outside of the dead-line on the press. There is a line marked on the bed of every cylinder press, known as the dead-line or gripper-line. If the form is placed too close to the edge of the chase and comes beyond the dead-line, the grippers will strike the type and batter it, and perhaps mash the grippers.
Still, then, violent stuff! Typeface set outside the dead-line would not be printed, and was at risk of total destruction. From its wartime beginnings to the printers shop, the deadline has been a threatening and oppressive force. Apt, then, for writers and the academy, and its final, more modern usage.
Not long after its recorded use for typesetting, deadline came to mean a time limit, in the sense that we might recognise. “esp.”, writes the OED, “a time by which material has to be ready for inclusion in a particular issue of a publication”.
And that’s what we’ve set. We really don’t want to shoot anyone. Or crush them under our press. But we do want your papers for the Procrastination Conference on 2 July 2014. So: you have until Friday (4 April) to submit abstracts and bursary applications. Off you go.