In History, What is, Words

I hate to do this to you but this week all the talk has been about torture. Yes, it’s Tax Return deadline time.

I was thinking of making this week’s word ‘revelation’ – the euphoric feeling you get when you finally submit your Tax Return to the Inland Revenue and find you’ve got enough money to pay the bill. But I thought ‘deadline’ would be a word that more of you could relate to.

There are various claims as to the origin of this relatively modern word. One, as you might have guessed, is from the printing trade, though, as you might not have guessed, it has nothing to do with time limits – that meaning came about a century later. In early 19th century printing, a ‘deadline’ was a margin around the outside of the page beyond which the type could not be relied upon to render reliably. So a printer would make sure to keep all the key content of the page within the deadline. Makes sense.

Meanwhile, down on the river, anglers were using the term ‘dead-line’ for a fishing line that was showing no sign of life – quite literally a dead line. You can see the logic in that. Today the same thinking might apply to the line into London Bridge round about 7am. Or what happens to your mobile signal in the vicinity of the Byfleet exit on the A3.

But the most dramatic origin of the word ‘deadline’ comes from the American Civil War – specifically the PoW camps. The most notorious of these was Camp Sumter, aka Andersonville, in Georgia, where thousands of Union prisoners died due to the appalling conditions – and the orders of camp commander Heinrich ‘Henry’ Wirz to shoot anyone who so much as touched the ‘deadline’.

In this case the deadline was a boundary around the area occupied by the prisoners, which was sketchy at best and imaginary in parts. With so many men crammed into so small a space, with no shelter from the elements, it was frighteningly easy to find yourself nudged over this deadline, whereupon the guard on the stockade would shoot you. No questions asked.

I’ve had some demanding editors but that seems a tad harsh.

Anyway, Wirz was tried, convicted and hanged for his actions at Andersonville, one of only two men to be executed for war crimes during the American Civil War. His was something of a show trial, and later examinations into Wirz’s conviction suggested that he had carried the can for the negligence of the Confederate government, but as with all such matters of justice, his big mistake had been to end up on the losing side.

In more favourable circumstances, Wirz would have lived happily ever after as a practitioner of alternative medicine. He’d always wanted to be a doctor but had been forced to leave his native Switzerland due to financial irregularities. Once settled in the US, he was an early adopter of the hydrotherapy revival, practising forms of clinical cleansing by means of high pressure water treatments – yes alright, waterboarding. Perhaps this is evidence that there’s a fine line between a homeopath and a psychopath.

Wirz, aged just 42, met his final deadline on 10 November 1865 and took a while to die at the end of the rope. Unpleasant, but slightly less painful than filing his Tax Return.

At Balance we never miss a deadline. Ever.

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