Word for Wednesday: Deadline

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We all have had them at some stage, occasionally we miss one.

Missing a deadline may have serious consequences for your exam result or project at work. However in the past, the word 'deadline' was often associated with death of many unfortunate prisoners.

During the American Civil War prison camps were constructed by both sides to accommodate the huge numbers of soldiers captured during the fighting. Many of these camp became notorious for being in-humane. One camp in particular, the Andersonville prison camp, was renowned for its cramped and filthy conditions.

To keep control of the prisoners a line about twenty feet (6.5m) from the perimeter wall, sometimes imaginary, sometimes marked by a shallow ditch or small fence, was established to mark 'the deadline'.

In an inspection report dated 10 May 1864, Confederate Captain Walter Bowie wrote: "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."

After the war newspapers and magazines were filled with stories and accounts of the horrific conditions inside the camps in which the word 'deadline' was used many times. The word was eventually adopted by the journalists due to the requirement to get their stories to the editors before certain time, otherwise they would not appear in the next issue of the newspaper and be therefore be considered 'dead'.

Deadline is now firmly entrenched in our everyday jargon. Next time you use the word or are given a seemingly impossible one to meet, spare a thought for those unfortunate prisoners and your task might not be as bad after all.

15 Jan 2014
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