The Hidden Power of Words: ‘Deadline’

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The Hidden Power of Words series takes a look at the language origins of frequently used words across the subjects of organizing, time management and productivity. There’s quite a lot of history and fascinating order when it comes to the words we use in today’s day and age!

deadline |ˈdedˌlīn|


1 the latest time or date by which something should be completed


Today’s Word: Deadline

Image of a stop sign, photography by R. Isip

Common Phrases and Usage in American English: “Brian’s working on a tight deadline now; he has to get his feature story to his editor by 4pm.” “Is there a deadline for this project or are we just going to keep on working at it little by little until it is done?”

My Take on the Definition and Guess as to the Origin: It’s not the most original guess, but perhaps this word has something to do with ‘death’ and ‘dead’ in the sense of finality. Maybe the word has something to do with ‘dead stop’ or as in ‘dead end?’

Drumroll Please:

historical a line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot.

Phew, what a concise word origin! I was interested in learning more about this word so I consulted my favorite secondary source, the Online Etymology Dictionary, for more information:

deadline (n.)

“time limit,” 1920, American English newspaper jargon, from dead (adj.) + line (n.). Perhaps influenced by earlier use (1864) to mean the “do-not-cross” line in Civil War prisons, which figured in the Wirz trial.

And he, the said Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure containing said prisoners a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison and about twenty feet distant from and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, he, the said Wirz, instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under [or] across the said “dead line” …. [“Trial of Henry Wirz,” Report of the Secretary of War, Oct. 31, 1865]

When it comes to turning in an article, project or report, a ‘deadline’ is a hard and fast stop; we must complete our task by that time. We know a deadline is something important, but exactly how important is it?

Image of an eBook with an alarm clock and the phrase, The Order Expert's Guide to Time Management


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Well, in the case of prisoners in Civil War prisons, it truly was a matter of life or death. While it might feel sometimes as if we are in a life and death situation when under a work or personal ‘deadline,’ it is not nearly as dismal as the original meaning.

Note: Dictionaries used for definitions and references are The New Oxford American Dictionary, Version 2.2.1 (143.1), Apple Inc., Copyright 2005-2011 and the Online Etymology Dictionary.



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Rashelle Isip is a New York City-based professional organizer and productivity consultant who helps people get organized so they can stress less, have more fun, and be happier at home. Her work has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Fast Company, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Business Insider, and The Atlantic. Get access to her free guide, 10 Simple Ways to Make Your To-Do Lists More Effective, by clicking here.
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