Breathing Life Into Deadlines

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Ours is a deadline-driven business. When a client hires us to do a project, it’s almost never a “when you can get around to it” affair. With few exceptions, the when of a project is as critical as the what and the how much. Typically, these deadlines revolve around a key milestone in some larger strategic initiative or a specific event. In the absence of those imperatives, urgency often comes in the form of a sales force demanding new and updated materials, budgets that need to be spent before the end of a fiscal year, or someone at the top who is tired of the fact that the organization lacks a uniform strategic messaging platform that enables employees to speak about its offerings with clarity and consistency.

From our perspective, honoring deadlines – whatever their source or rationale – is paramount. Our job is to provide our clients with what they need, when they need it. At the same time, we have been around long enough to know that deadlines are often more approximate than absolute, and even “drop dead” deadlines are rarely lethal. Nevertheless, we take deadlines seriously. In fact, the very word itself suggests something that is not to be taken lightly.

Today, “deadline” refers to a time limit within which something must be completed. That definition, however, seems to have entered common usage only in the 1920s – not surprisingly, through the newspaper business. Yet its original meaning was quite different.

By all accounts, the word was coined at the notorious Civil War prison camp known as Andersonville, located in Macon, Georgia. Over the course of the war, nearly 13,000 Union prisoners died there, mostly of disease due to massive overcrowding, insufficient food, and unsanitary conditions. No doubt others were victims of the so-called “dead-line”: According to an inspection report on Andersonville from Confederate Captain Walter Bowie on May 10, 1864, “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.”

The dead-line was reportedly established by the camp’s commander, Captain Henry Wirz, who later was tried and executed for war crimes – one of only two people to be so charged and sentenced as a result of their conduct during the Civil War.

The bridge from Civil War prison to journalism appears to be through the printing press, where “deadline” described a physical limit affecting how text was printed. Any type set outside the deadline would not print. From there, a deadline became any limit that cannot be crossed without consequences. In his 1909 short story "The Enchanted Profile," author O. Henry used it to describe a social more: “She had unfailing kindliness and good nature; and not even a whitelead drummer or fur importer had ever dared to cross the dead line of good behavior in her presence.”

By 1920, “deadline” was a synonym for “time limit” and nearly a century later, Libretto remains committed to producing high-quality work that aligns with our clients’ delivery expectations. As long as they are real, reasonable, and clients adhere to their own review dates, deadlines are something we respect but never fear.

File under Civil War, Deadlines, Etymology, O. Henry

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