Electric Cars and Electrical Engineers

By Maeve Maddox

Jeffrey asks:

What is the proper use of the words electric and electrical?
I am an engineer and do not know when to use one form or the other.  We say “electric car” but also say “electrical wiring.”  If I have
a new device: is it an electric device or an electrical device?  Is the equipment in the electric room or the electrical room?
Is there a proper distinction or at least a rule of thumb?

Merriam-Webster lists electrical as a variant of electric, but the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) makes this useful distinction:

electric: containing, producing, arising from, actuated by or carrying electricity.

electrical: relating to, pertaining to, or associated with electricity but not having its properties.

With this distinction in mind we would speak of an electrical engineer, but an electric typewriter.

Etymological note:
Essayist Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was the first to use the word electric in English. A Latin version, electricus, was coined by English physicist William Gilbert (1540-1603). He took the word from Latin electrum, “amber.” The Greek word for amber was elektron. Electricity was first generated by rubbing amber.

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9 Responses to “Electric Cars and Electrical Engineers”

  • Baruch Atta

    Things are electric. If your native language is English, you wouldnt be asking this question. Engineers are electrical. If an engineer is electric, it would mean that he is run by electricity, i.e. a robot.

    The same issue applies to mechanic and mechanical. A mechanical engineer creates engines. A mechanic fixes them.

    Therefore, I am happy to be a software engineer.

  • Deborah

    I’ve never had trouble choosing between electric and electrical, but I do have a related problem that perhaps Jeffery can help with.

    How does one choose between the words “motor” and “engine.” I tend to think of a motor as being powered by electricity—such as my hand mixer or portable fan—while engines run on fuel.

    But people with boats seem to call their engines “motors.” Motor seems to be more of an old-fashioned kind of word, too (more English, maybe?) while engine is modern and powerful.

    How do I choose the right word?

  • spike1

    Hardly call engine more modern when you consider the 19th century when steam engines reigned supreme.

    Yes, motorboat, motorcar, “‘ello John go’ a new motah!”… etc…
    But they are powered by an engine, while a motor is a construct of magnets and wires rather than pistons and expanding gases.

  • Andy Knoedler

    Actually, the word that always through me for a loop was electronic. A few years ago I finally found out the difference between electronic and electrical.

    I’ve done a bit of work and have discovered the Collins English Dictionary’s useful distinction between electronic and the other two words under consideration:

    Usage: Electronic is used to refer to equipment, such as television sets, computers, etc., in which the current is controlled by transistors, valves, and similar components and also to the components themselves. Electrical is used in a more general sense, often to refer to the use of electricity as a whole as opposed to other forms of energy: electrical engineering; an electrical appliance. Electric, in many cases used interchangeably with electrical, is often restricted to the description of particular devices or to concepts relating to the flow of current: electric fire; electric charge.

  • Andy Knoedler

    Oops! That should be “threw me for a loop”.

  • Baruch Atta

    What throws me for a loop is Donavan’s “Mellow Yellow” where he sings about an “electrical banana”. MOre like “Ee-lec-trickle banana”.

  • JC

    Let’s see if I can get this in 20 words or fewer.

    “Elecritic” runs on electricity,
    “Electrical” has to do with electricity,
    “Electronis” is controlled by electricity

    Done with 25% savings!

  • Ian

    @ Baruch Atta

    It’s not the same with ‘mechanic’ and ‘mechanical’. You see, it’s mechanical engineer and then there are mechanical toys. In case of electric/electrical it would’ve been electrical engineer and electric toys.

    Furthermore, this *ic/*ical issue is quite confusing. I mean, electronical, pneumatical, etc. aren’t even ‘real’ words. So, why ‘electrical’ is?

  • Baruch Atta

    To Ian

    You have to remember the SHORISH of the two words.

    Machine – mechanic – mechanical
    Electricity – electrician – electrical

    I am not sure is machine is the shorish of mechanic/ mechanical. But there is no word machinic or machinian, or for that matter, machinical. You can google it.

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