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TWTS: When deadlines were deadly

Anyone who’s used to working under a deadline knows it can be stressful. At least today’s deadlines don’t usually involve actual death – that wasn’t always the case.

This week’s topic comes from an episode of the Amazon Prime show “Your Honor.” In this episode, Michael Stuhlbarg’s character orders Bryan Cranston’s character to do something by a certain time.

He then says, “Let’s call that a deadline. And let’s give that word its literal meaning.”

At that point, the fate of Cranston’s character fell to secondary importance, as we wondered what the literal meaning of “deadline” could be. Whatever it was, it probably wasn’t good.

“Deadline” goes back to the 1800s and had a couple of meanings. One was related to fishing. A “deadline” was a line that was weighted and wouldn’t move once it was placed in the water.

The other meaning was less innocuous. During the Civil War, “deadline” was used in the military to refer to a line that was drawn or dug around a prison. If a prisoner went beyond that line, there’s a strong likelihood they would be shot.

Around the 1920s, “deadline” came to refer to a time by which you must get something done. This first shows up in the publishing industry, here in the United States.

Many commentators link the military prison meaning to this time limit meaning, which we still use today.

While researching “dead” as a modifier, Professor Anne Curzan discovered that the Oxford English Dictionary lists over 30 meanings for “dead” that go far beyond “not alive.” To hear about some of those meanings, listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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