By Joel Dresang

It wouldn’t kill you to finish a task on time. But it used to be murder to violate a deadline.

In common usage, a deadline is the latest time by which something is due or a job must be completed.

For instance, April 15 traditionally is the deadline to file individual income taxes. (It can vary though, including April 18 in 2023.) We frequently face deadlines, such as when we have to pay rent or leave a bar or get our picks in for the company basketball pool.

Learn more
deadline, from Online Etymology Dictionary
The Morbid Origin of the Word “Deadline,” from War History Online

To be effective, deadlines carry consequences. If you miss the tax deadline, the IRS figures you failed to file. The penalty for failing to file is an extra payment of up to 25% of the taxes you owe – plus interest.

The IRS is not as harsh as the agencies that enforced deadlines when the term first became popular. In the 19th century, a deadline was a boundary around a prison. It marked the point beyond which inmates would be shot as escapees.

During the Civil War, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia was infamous for setting a deadline within the prison walls.

“Orders were given to the guards that any man who crossed the deadline, even by a hair, would be shot on sight without warning,” according to an article on War History Online, which fact-checks its authors.

After the war, when word got out about the conditions in the camp, the prison commander was tried and convicted of war crimes then hanged. News coverage of the trial helped spread the use of the word deadline.

In the early 20th century, the word took on its tamer meaning as a cut-off time. Newspaper editors are credited for using deadline as the time by which copy had to be ready so it could be included in a particular edition of the publication. Absent the credible threat of capital punishment, though, journalists are notorious for flouting their deadlines.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

For What It’s Worth is an occasional look at the meanings and origins of words and expressions investors may encounter.

(initially posted Jan. 30, 2023)