The Words We Use - Deadline

Published on December 19, 2022

the words we use project management

2 min read

This post is part of The Words We Use series.

During an interview this morning I was asked about how I approach deadlines. My answer began with something like:

“I’m not sure of deadline’s etymology, but it doesn’t sound friendly. It would seem to imply that if the line is crossed, death will result. Or at the very least, there will be some very serious consequences. In my experience, deadlines are often artificial and arbitrary, organizationally self-imposed, and are not a matter of life or death.”

Curiosity prompted me to later seek out the history of the word.

According to various sources, including Merriam-Webster, the word starts to appear in written records during the 1860s, specifically in connection with the Civil War.

The original meaning was, just as it sounds, a line around prisoners beyond which they would be shot dead. One work quoted by Merriam-Webster highlights a psychological angle of the tool:

“The guard lines are drawn in; making our play grounds much smaller and cutting us off from our best well of water, this is done for no other purpose under the sun but to interfere with our only enjoyment and to grind us to the lowest depth of subjugation.”

—William Williston Heartsill, Diary of William Williston Heartsill (entry Mar. 1863)

To me, a direct comparison between prisoners at risk of death and modern-day workers’ at-will employment seems inappropriate. A bit overdramatic, even for me. Nevertheless, in the spirit of this series, I do wonder whether the negative overtones carry through. Whether familiar with the word’s history or not, the picture it paints and the feeling it conveys is clear:

Cross this line and there will be seriously bad consequences.

Like the above picture of a dead tree in a barren West Texas landscape, “deadline” ominously portends difficult times ahead. It made me ask myself:

  • Is that the message I’m trying to convey?
  • Is the timeline truly so rigid that no adjustments can be considered?
  • Are hints of threatening outcomes, even if admittedly subtle, the best way to inspire staff to achieve their peak performance?

For me, the answer to the above is No. I think words such as goal, estimate, projection, or delivery date would better communicate both the thought and the intended feeling.