Like a lot of friends and colleagues I was very upset by the death of Andy Carolan. Though I wasn’t able (ironically due to pressure of work) to attend his funeral or memorial service, his death threw a lot of aspects of our business into sharp perspective. It kind of threw me into a contemplative frame of mind, which was the context for the following observations…
A while ago I had the rare opportunity to lunch in Brighton, where I live, at Delice Cafe Bistro Wine, with my son, Ben.
A rare opportunity to have lunch with Ben, that is, not to visit the delicious bistro. Naturally, we were joined by the elegant and mysterious Mrs Spooner after she had phoned in her order stood, as she was, at the station seeing off my daughter Tabby on her way to watch The Seagulls thrash Huddersfield 4 – 1. How long ago that seems now that Brighton have been defeated at home by deadly rivals Palace in the Premiership play-offs.
We walked through the Saturday Market in Upper Gardener Street and I said something to him about a deadline. We then got to talking about how, though I’d used the word on a daily basis for nearly 30 years, three times his age, I had never thought what the origin of the expression might be.
My guess was naval or military, his was to do with plum-bobs.
This in turn prompted a swift battle of the formats with his use of AQA (text 63336) versus my 3G smartphone and the Etymological Dictionary Online. He won in terms of speed of response, I won in terms of detail. This is what we found out:
Ben asked AQA what the origin of the term ‘deadline’ was. This is the reply he received:
‘Deadline stems from American Civil War camps. Boundaries were drawn in the earth or marked by fences. Prisoners were warned: ‘You cross and you’ll die’.
I typed ‘deadline’ into The Online Etymological Dictionary and this is what it came up with: “time limit,” 1920, American English newspaper jargon, from dead (adj.) + line (n.). Perhaps influenced by earlier use (1864) to mean the “do-not-cross” line in Civil War prisons, which figured in the Wirz trial.
“And he, the said Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure containing said prisoners a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison and about twenty feet distant from and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, he, the said Wirz, instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under [or] across the said “dead line” ….” [“Trial of Henry Wirz,” Report of the Secretary of War, Oct. 31, 1865]
So. It was quite easy to explain to a reasonably bright 9-year-old boy how the analogy was drawn, initially in the US newspaper business, between an imaginary line in the sand which one could not cross on pain of death and an imaginary time and date after which publication would not be possible. And it was easy for him to see how that analogy could spread into all other areas of business, specifically our own.
What was less easy to explain to Ben was how the hysterical huxterism of my business could comfortably compare the death of a P.O.W. with the failure to insert a 20 double in the Guardian Finance Pages.
Which reminded me of something which a former, and, quite possibly, criminally venal production director of mine used to say when the suits were racing to and fro in a blind lather over a missed deadline: “Nobody dies”.
By coincidence we went into the corner shop near my house in Brighton later in the day, which is run by a lovely, extended family of (then) uncertain ethnicity. I noticed that the radio was tuned to an Arabic station and said “Where does your family come from?” He said “Syria”. I, ever the Englishmen of a certain type, said “Oh, whereabouts?” “Homs,” he replied. “Like on the news?” said Ben. “Like on the news,” said the nice man.
All of which gave me pause for thought.
I know that people lose their livelihoods in this business every day and that hardship is not unknown in the advertising and marketing world. You only have to engage with NABS to know how tough it can be. But as the (possibly criminally venal) production director pointed out, “nobody dies”.
Next time you are screaming at a colleague about the importance of a deadline, it might well be worth bearing all of this in mind.
Normal, facile and facetious service will be resumed in the next dollop of “The Lovin’ Spoonful”.
Jonathan Spooner is executive creative director at Tangible
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