Our language has a nice way of softening the meaning of nasty expressions. Take the word “deadline.” There was a time, not too long ago, when a dead-line was a line beyond which, if caught crossing it, you were liable to be killed. This was most applicable in a prison situation, when the captors had not had time to erect secure walls or fences, and simply stationed guards in watchtowers, with orders to shoot any attempted line-crossers.
I first learned about this in connection with the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, in the Civil War. Conditions there were so horrendous that many Union prisoners were reported to have, in effect, committed suicide, by deliberately throwing themselves upon the dead-line.
But what I find remarkable is how quickly, after that conflict was over, the term acquired the convenient metaphorical meaning that it still enjoys. When speaking today of rushing to meet a deadline for handing in an article, or completing some other assignment – particularly in the world of journalism, where it happens very aptly to rhyme with “headline” – the user is hardly likely to be conscious of the original meaning of that expression.
But of course, we have many other words and expressions conveying the same idea. I recently heard a dispenser of family advice on the radio telling parents that they must “set limits” to the behavior of their teenage children, but conceding that it was not always easy to do. This reminded me of my relationship with my own parents, in the years when we lived in England. Somewhat strangely as it might seem, they yielded quite readily to my adolescent wanderlust, and allowed me to go off hitchhiking, sometimes with a friend, but often alone – at first, all over Britain, then on the continent. But a time came when they drew the line – and I have never really forgiven them for it. The line they drew was between Europe and Africa. I very much wanted to visit Morocco, but to do so, I needed a visa, to secure which, for anyone under-age, required the consent of the parents. Mine had been hearing news reports of unrest in Morocco. They felt that it was unsafe, and refused to let me go.
I can still remember my feelings of anger and frustration, after hitch-hiking all the way down through France and Spain, to be sitting on top of the Rock of Gibraltar, looking across the Strait, to the clearly visible North African shore, just a short boat ride away, but held back only by my parents’ “limit.”
Another way of expressing the same idea is to talk about “drawing a line in the sand.” The most famous historically recent usage of those words came in 1991, after Iraq, under its military dictator, Saddam Hussein, had invaded and occupied the neighboring oil-rich State of Kuwait. The American President, George H.W. Bush, declared rather vaguely that “We have drawn a line in the sand,” as a sort of justification for launching the U.S. response, which became known as “Operation Desert Storm.”
Then there is the expression, “Beyond the Pale.” “Pale” is related to the word “palisade” – a fence of pointed stakes. It came to refer to a large boundary-fence enclosing a particular territory. One noted example was that which for many centuries marked the border of English settlement in Ireland, centered on Dublin.
But, as with “deadline,” the expression came to have metaphorical meaning. Even today, anything which goes “beyond the Pale” is considered to be outrageous, or in some other way unacceptable.
There are of course all kinds of political boundaries and borders. In our own time, probably the most dramatic was the so-called Iron Curtain, a physical barrier of fences, walls, minefields, and watchtowers, 4,300 miles long, which separated the Communist East from the rest of Europe.
Under the system set up in 1945, Berlin, the enemy capital, which was entirely within the Soviet-occupied East Germany, was shared among the occupying powers. Eventually, within that city, the Iron Curtain was embodied in the notorious Berlin Wall. Once, through military friends, Dorothy and I were able to pass through the opposing checkpoints to go shopping in East Berlin. But what most impressed me was that, between the two sides, there was a grassy area, a sort of “no-man’s-land,” where, with nobody to molest them, thousands of rabbits had taken up residence. I have often wondered what happened to all those Berlin Bunnies, when the Wall finally came down.