The Liberation of Deadlines

17 Jun

Deadlines encourage success. But if you’re under a deadline that’s not much solace. Except, think about this: Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd edition says the word was coined around 1855 as a description of the perimeter around a military prison beyond which a prisoner might be shot. The term became popular during the Civil War when military prisons mushroomed.

Today’s deadlines are a lot less final than those of yore. It’s unlikely you’ll take a slug from most bosses if you miss a deadline.

Although, I admit, there’ve been times as an editor that I wanted to take a shot at a writer or two whose grasp of a deadline was markedly different than mine. I suspect I, too, have been in some editor’s sights a time or two as a deadline approached.

Generally, though, successful writers are good with deadlines. It helps their career to be fixated on the deadline. As Woody Allen observed long ago, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” There’s nothing that says showing up like a news story, a feature article, a blog post, even a tweet, I suppose, appearing in an editor’s in-box on-time. Given the word’s derivation, it probably is an added relief to the writer to meet a deadline to prevent becoming metaphorical target practice for rigid editors who hand out plum assignments.

Deadline is so closely associated with publishing that a few people argue that it comes from a process in printing and is much less life-threatening to writers or anyone else laboring under a deadline. I prefer the prison-perimeter origin of the word. It strikes me as more motivating. And there’s the lovely support the prison history source gets in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1965), where there’s also this bon mot from Mr. Fowler, who, like many writers, has felt the pain of a deadline: “Its recent extension to serve for any limit beyond which it is not permissible to go (especially the time within which a task must be finished) is useful, although, like all popular new metaphors it breeds forgetfulness of common words…that might sometimes be more suitable.”

You might want to remind your boss that one of the great etymologists of the last century thinks “deadline” is a tad overused and often not suitable. Tell him, even Fowler says so.

If that’s not a possible defense for sliding past a deadline, consider this: being “under a deadline’ is actually a bit liberating. To be under that perimeter deadline in prison meant you had to be in a tunnel, unnoticed by the armed guards, making your escape. Once you get beyond that deadline, you’re free, liberated, at large.

Until your next assignment.

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