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Drop-dead deadline

I like the whooshing sound

Hillary Clinton said, of the July 2011 deadline set by Obama for US troops to begin pulling out of Afghanistan:

We’re not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline.

It’s unfortunate, perhaps, to bring up the subject of yet more people dropping dead in Afghanistan on one date or another. But there seems indeed to be a massive internal battle of metaphors to describe this deadline: the White House said it was set in stone; but then the national security adviser said it was a guide slope, and a ramp, not a cliff. ((The Guardian, confusingly, got this the wrong way round, quoting Jones as saying it’s “a cliff, not a ramp”. Well, do I pack a base-jumping parachute or a BMX bike, or what? Someone might also have called it a signal of urgency, which phrase appears in quotes in the Guardian standfirst, but I can’t find this sourced anywhere as a direct quote from an individual.))

More importantly, though, is Clinton’s drop-dead deadline overegging it? On the one hand, I feel drop-deadline would be more elegantly compact; on the other hand, there’s something satisfying about biting down on the three initial dentals of drop-dead deadline (compare “Drop the Dead Donkey”).

As it happens, deadline derives from something that meant literally a drop-dead-line:

2. Mil. A line drawn around a military prison, beyond which a prisoner is liable to be shot down.
1864 […] The ‘dead line’, beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass.
1868 […] Seventeen feet from the inner stockade was the ‘dead-line’, over which no man could pass and live. ((OED. In fishing (1860) and engineering, a dead-line is also “a line that does not move”; but the modern use to mean “time-limit” (Chicago newspapermen c.1920) seems to have come via a combination of the military meaning with a use of the term in printing (1917), where the dead-line was “a guide-line marked on the bed of a printing-press”, beyond which the type was not allowed to protrude.))

“Hitting a deadline”, as we say, is therefore a rather riskier kind of brinkmanship than I had imagined.

Curiously, then, Clinton’s drop-dead deadline is an example of unveiling and restressing the original meaning of a word in order to disavow it. Perhaps, after all, it would be better not to speak of deadlines in this case at all?

  1. 1  Dave Weeden  December 9, 2009, 7:21 pm 

    I like the Douglas Adams reference in the subtitle.

  2. 2  Dan A  December 9, 2009, 7:38 pm 

    I have heard the term “drop dead deadline” used in a writing sense by the great author Dan Simmons on his forum (can’t find the quote now, naturally); it apparently means the absolute very latest date you can hand in your manuscript to the publisher.

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