by Piet Coetzer

A deadline can leave you dead in the water

Why you shouldn't miss the deadline for your tax return

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Meeting or making deadlines has become an integral part of modern life, something that we are constantly chasing, from meeting the deadline for the submission of our tax returns to submitting an application for this or that. The expression started off as (literally) a deadly serious matter.

The term deadline is a really anAmericanism dating from the days of the civil war in the second half of the 19th century and the prisoner-of-war camps set up at the time. It made its first known appearance during 1864 in the records of the American congress, where we learn that a 'dead-line' was a line beyond which the prisoners were not allowed to pass.

The dead-line was literally drawn in the dirt and often marked by a fence or rail, which  prisoners were not allowed to cross. They were warned that "if you cross this line, you're dead", because it was assumed that if they did cross the line they were trying to escape and the guards were authorised to shoot them.

In his History of the Civil War, published in 1868 Benson John Lossing wrote,  "Seventeen feet from the inner stockade was the 'dead-line', over which no man could pass and live."

Although the original roots are likely to be the same, it is from another source that the term 'deadline' probably became so popular and widely used. The term became known in the printing industry during the early 20th century and had nothing to do with the now generally accepted reference to a cutoff time. It referred to a guideline on the bed of a printing press beyond which text will not print.

The first known use of the term in this context appears in Frank S. Henry's Printing for School and Shop, published in 1917, in which he advised,"Make certain that the type does not come outside of the dead-line on the press."

It was also during this period that the competition between newspapers to have the latest news and still get a newspaper printed and distributed on time became fierce. Time limits for reporters and other writers to produce copy or text became critical.

If you delivered copy after the time set for the printing press to start rolling, it was as good as having missed the dead-line on the bed of the printing press. 

Because journalists and other writers were constantly living under the pressure of the deadline it was only natural that the term would soon migrate to being used in just about every other aspect of fast-paced modern life.

And many of us know that in most cases if you miss a deadline you are also dead in the water, as in having no chance to win an argument with the taxman. 

We could not find a date for the first use of the expression “dead in the water” but every source we found described it as being a naval term that originally referred to a motionless sailing ship on a windless day appearing to be dead in the water.

In naval battles the expression describes an incapacitated ship, a more literal meaning. And, in personal experience the same is true when involved in an argument with the taxman.

After all, there is great truth in the proverb that there are only two absolute certainties in life: death and taxes.

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Issue 393


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