What It Means Now:
The guideline at the bottom of a printing press signifying that any article submitted past a certain date won't be printed (and is therefore "dead") has been around for at least a century. Although the phrase became widely known due to its association with the press in the 20th century, its history is quite a bit older.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images
The "press" existed in the second millennium. It sent words on wood to people's homes.
But It Used to Mean ...
In 1864, the Civil War had three years under its belt, so there were loads of soldiers in POW camps on both sides. And if you were unlucky enough to be one of the 45,000 Union soldiers stuck in the Andersonville Prison, you would have learned the meaning of "deadline" in a terrifyingly literal fashion. To keep prisoners from escaping, a 17-foot-tall fence was built around the perimeter of the prison, with guards set in sentry posts along the length of it. And just to make extra sure everyone starved to death in an orderly fashion within the designated starving cage, a "deadline" was established 12 feet from the inside of the fence. This invisible boundary and everything beyond was off-limits to prisoners, and anyone looking to test this rule was immediately shot by the guards.
Library of Congress
They shoulda just put up another damn fence, 12 feet in.
So ... how is that different from modern prisons? Harsher, maybe, but still -- you go for the fence, you get put down. That hasn't changed. Here's Private James Anderson, a Confederate soldier, reporting on the problem with deadlines:
"Now, we have many thoughtless boys here who think the killing of a Yankee will make them great men. As a consequence, every day or two there are prisoners shot."
Sidney E. King
Those boys could have killed all the Yankees they wanted on the battlefield, but war is scary.
Prisoners were shot for deadline-related infractions every day or two. And sure, some of them were probably purposely pushing the boundaries, but plenty of them were behaving perfectly innocently when some jerkwad with a rifle decided he wanted to make a name for himself. The guards could simply claim that the victim was over the deadline, or, hey, just drag the body over it, and be pardoned without arrest or punishment. It was a Get Out of Jail card good for unlimited free murders.
Wait, so a looming "deadline" always meant false reports and eager young men jumping the gun? No wonder journalists appropriated it.
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What It Means Now:
It's big, and it crawls, and it pushes stuff.
We, uh ... we don't have a clever write-up to explain bulldozers to you. If you are unfamiliar, perhaps see the dissertations of one Mr. Tonka.
But It Used to Mean ...
Originally "bulldozer" was a term applied to people -- specifically, people who used intimidation, fear, and violence to further their political agenda at the expense of whatever was standing in their way. And by "whatever was standing in their way," we mostly mean "black people."
Prejudice: secretly responsible for half the English language.
Forgive us for the controversial statement, but in the post-Civil War Deep South, it may have been advantageous to be a bearded white dude. The Reconstruction era saw scads of the aforementioned beardos who had just lost a war, their slaves, and a lot of their land in one fell swoop. No surprise, then, that the South became solidly Democratic.*
*Important note: "Democrat" didn't always mean "liberal Starbucks-dweller who won't get off their MacBook."
If there was one thing that might prevent the Democrats from staying in power, though, it was the influx of newly freed black citizens who were suddenly able to vote in elections. The key word here being "able." Around 1876, some white dudes in Louisiana figured out a simple way to keep black people from voting. What tool could possibly be so persuasive, you ask? Rallying speeches? Negative campaign ads? Naive presidential promises? None of the above: Armed vigilantes would go out at night and lash potential Republican voters (read: black folks) with a bullwhip. Flogging the ever-loving hell out of someone with a bullwhip was referred to as "giving them a dose of the bull," while the people who administered said lashes were called "bulldozers."
At some point Democrats and Republicans alike began to use the term "bulldozer" to refer to a corrupt politician or anyone "willing to stuff a ballot-box or shoot a n****r, or, for that matter, a white man, in order to get an office." Hey, nobody said a political party is one of those fun ones with dancing and coed Twister. The cops are getting called and somebody is winding up with a scar and a story after this hoedown.
Related Reading: Speaking of phrases with dark origins, did you know Mussolini didn't actually make the trains run on time? And if you're the kind of person who says "amazeballs" regularly, the world probably wants you dead. For a look at all the phrases you won't believe Shakespeare invented, click here.