Dead-line
potatsy
I am aware of both definitions related to the word deadline. However, I am wondering when, or more specifically, how the word used for prisons/prisoners slipped into usage by writers and others, specifically newspapers.
Lewis Joplin II
If a reporter doesn't get a "hard news" story (car wrecks, train wrecks, etc.) in by the deadline, the story doesn't get in the newspaper that day. The story is "killed." And there's nothing deader than yesterday's news. (A feature story has a little longer shelf life.) A writer can turn in a story that is poetry but it's absolutely useless if it doesn't fit the "news hole" or space available and isn't turned in by the deadline. The newsroom saying is: Get it right, get it tight and get it tonight.

DEADLINE -- "This expression has its origin in the infamous Confederate prison camp at Andersonville during the Civil War. There the deadline was a line marked 17 feet from the camp fence. Any prisoner who crossed that line was shot dead by the guards. It seems that newspaper reporters and editors were the first to use the word in its present sense of a time when a task must be finished. They applied it to the time when a a story had to be completed; if the story wasn't in by that time, it was in effect killed or dead for that edition." From the "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997)

potatsy
As I stated, I am very much aware of both the definitions for deadline, along with the various connotations.

What I am after is the true etymology of the word. The definition started to mark a literal "line" of "death" for prisoners in prison and for soldiers in combat. It was later used for writers in newspapers and then various other fields.

What I am curious about is that etymology - the history of the word from the battlefield to the newsroom (though they are quite similar). Who brought the word into the new context, if it can be traced historically?

Lewis Jop
Okey dokey. I can tell you that the term "dead line" was used in "an 1864 congressional report" explaining the usage in one camp and "...the storyteller O. Henry wrote in 1909 about crossing 'the dead line of good behavior.'..." From "America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America" by Allen Metcalf and David K. Barnhart (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston & New York, 1997). That's as specific as I can get.
Lewis Joplin II
In addition to the prison and newspaper meanings of the word, "dead line" also meant "an urban district of saloons and brothels. 1910 'Everybody's Mag.'..." From the "Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume 1, A-G" by J.E. Lighter, Random House, New York, 1994.
Return to the archive