Word origin - DEADLINE

Does anyone know the origin of the word DEADLINE?

I’m assuming you’re talking about the word’s usage as a time limit.

The OED doesn’t show a definite origin, but does show a couple of usages from the 1800 that are similar. The one that seems to apply is a military or police term:

This usage as an actual physical line that couldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) be crossed seems to have become the time limit usage.

Interestingly, they also quote an old instruction book for printing presses, which shows that presses had a physical “dead-line” beyond which no type could be placed, or (one presumes) mechanical damage might take place. This usage obviously derives from the military term, and its presence in the printing industry (although as a physical cut-off point) may be why the term came into usage specifically in that industry as a time cut-off point.


While my copy of Lighter ,which I revere, doesn’t include a usage as early as the 1860’s(from whence the prison usage, I assume), The meaning of “dead” used as an adjective meaning “absolute” or “unmistakeable” is certainly traceable to decades before the Civil War.

RJK What was the date of the printing press usage?

The OED says

The military usage dates to the 1860s as you surmised. The printing press cite (as shown above) is 1917, and the “time cut-off for the last chance to get in the paper” usages are shown as 1929 and later.


Thank you! I knew I could count on y’all.

And this just in from Random House Word of the Day:

Here’s the reference from Evan Morris’s Word Detective: Deadline

I highly recommend this site (www.word-detective.com) when you’re looking for word origins. Cecil has cited Evan Morris upon occasion, and vice versa.

From the diary of John L. Ransom, brigade quartermaster sergeant of the Ninth Michigan Calvary, captured on 6 Nov 1863 near Rogersville, East Tennessee, and prisoner of war in both Belle Isle and Andersonville (writing here of Belle Isle):

(First issued privately by the author in Auburn, New York, 1881, under the title “Andersonville” - later (1963) reissued by Paul S. Eriksson, under the title “John Ransom’s Diary” - taken here from the 1994 Berkley edition titled “John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary”, p. 6 - a damned good read!)

This seems to confirm that the words “dead line” were in use by 1863 among Union soldiers (and presumably Confederates as well) as referring to the boundary around a stockade past which a prisoner was forbidden to proceed - under penalty of a Minie’ ball through the vitals. Ransom may have first heard the term in Andersonville, which he arrived at later, and then applied it retroactively to Belle Isle - but from the way the diary is written, I don’t think so. Can anyone find a similar usage any earlier?

By the way, if you would like to see a good movie about this period in U.S. history, I strongly recommend the TNT movie Andersonville.