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Where Does the Word “Deadline” Come From?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 16, 2024
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“I need that by the end of the week,” your boss tells you, instilling fear and dread that you can’t possibly get everything accomplished by then. But you soldier on, and do your best to meet your boss’s demands. Luckily, deadlines today have a very different meaning than they once did.

During the U.S. Civil War, if you were unlucky enough to get captured and sent to the Confederate encampment for deserters and Union soldiers at Andersonville Prison (also known as Camp Sumter) in rural Georgia, you would have known the original definition of deadline, or "dead line," as it was written back then. In the context of the POW camp, a dead line referred to a perimeter around 20 feet (6 m) inside the stockade walls that prisoners should not cross. If you did, you’d be shot on the spot by sentries standing on guard platforms.

Don't miss that deadline:

  • The infamous Andersonville Prison became one of the largest POW camps in the Confederacy. At its peak, the facility housed more than 30,000 Union prisoners. Conditions there were squalid and inhumane.

  • Of the 45,000 Union prisoners held at Andersonville during the Civil War, it’s estimated that nearly a third died. There was no clean water and no sanitation. If a prisoner broke a rule, food and basic supplies were withheld.

  • The term has other potential origins, as well. In the early 20th century, a "deadline" was a line marked on a cylindrical printing press, indicating where text would be legible and where it would not. Anglers in the mid-1800s used the term to refer to a weighted fishing line that doesn’t move in the water.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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