Electrocute

By Maeve Maddox

The verb electrocute was coined in the late nineteenth century on the model of execute in the sense of “to inflict capital punishment upon.”

Unlike execute, which has a legitimate Latin etymology, electrocute is a portmanteau word. H. W. Fowler (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage) held it in disdain:

This word does not claim classical paternity; if it did, it would indeed be a barbarism. It is merely a portmanteau word formed by telescoping electro- and execution, and, as it is established, protest is idle.”

Fowler was writing about forty-five years after Buffalo, New York dentist Alfred P. Southwick invented the electric chair in 1881 as a more humane method than hanging. The first person to be executed by electrocution was William Kemmler (1860-1890). The newness of the word is apparent in the two earliest OED citations, dated 1889 and 1890:

He wants to be ‘electrocuted’…
The gentleman…should be ‘electrocuted’…

By 1903, the word was in use without enclosing quotation marks.

The OED includes a second definition of electrocute as “to give an electric shock to” and includes this citation from an Australian source:

I was electrocuted. I can still smell the flesh burning.

American usage, however, does not allow for the survival of an electrocuted person. Merriam-Webster offers two definitions:

1. to put to death as a legal punishment by causing a fatally large electric current to pass through the body.

2. to kill by electric shock.

The following examples from the Web illustrate nonstandard (US) usage:

I was trying to unplug my cell phone charger and got my fingers too close to the bottom. They touched the prongs and I got electrocuted!

I electrocuted myself three times trying to unplug my laptop charger.

Teenage friends electrocuted trying to take selfie on top of train (The girls were severely injured, but, as they survived, they were not electrocuted.)

Paul Brians (Common Errors in English Usage) summarizes US usage this way:

To electrocute is to kill using electricity. If you live to tell the tale, you’ve been shocked, but not electrocuted. For the same reason, the phrase “electrocuted to death” is a redundancy.

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6 Responses to “Electrocute”

  • thebluebird11

    Fascinating! Never knew this…never thought about it. Great post!

  • David Knuttunen

    It seems to me that the using “electrocuted” in a non-fatal context may be an intentionally hyperbolic usage (at least among older speakers?), like the use of “kill” in “my feet are killing me!”

  • thebluebird11

    @David: I don’t know. I think people are not aware (as I wasn’t) that it means, or at least originally meant, death by electricity. When I worked ER, if someone was zapped by a downed power line like after a hurricane, or was a lineman (for electric company) who got shocked, or even struck by lightning, that is more than just a little shock. You can get a shock from a home outlet, but when that major current throws you 20 feet and burns you to the bone from hand to foot, that is more than just a shock. I would say electrocuted even if the person survived. Maybe we need a new word, or maybe we need to stretch electrocute to include near-death or severe injury by high-voltage electrical shock.

  • ApK

    Bluebird, if a near-fatal injury was caused by something other than electricity, would you need a special word for it? How do you differentiate between getting stabbed in the palm and needing a few stitches from being stabbed in the heart?

    I have always liked….wait ‘liked’ may be too creepy a word in this context…I have always appreciated ‘electrocution’ as a term for a form of execution, and hate to see it watered down needlessly.

    Surely one can say “nearly” or “almost” electrocuted or some other such qualifier to mean just shy of dying from electric shock.

  • venqax

    I have to admit I was not aware of the requirement that electrocution ended in death. If anything, I would be more likely to say I got electrocuted by some jolt than shocked because “shocked” sounds kind of slang-ish and informal. I never considered the etymology of the word, either. Can we at least say someone was paralectrocuted or something when he was– god forbid– “burned to the bone”? I mean, while we’re portmanteauing and all. @ApK, yes, we have the difference between stabbed and pricked. Or even nicked, don’t we? Yes, stabbed needs to be qualified.

    I am really surprised that MW does not accept it given that people use it that way and MW’s standard seems to be “someone, sometime, somewhere, spelled, uttered, muttered, or sputtered it.” This is the place that acknowledges nucular, after all.

  • thebluebird11

    @ApK: You advocate using the word in a very narrow sense, i.e., execution by electricity. That does not even allow the stretch to people who were unintentionally killed by electricity from a downed power line or lightning, certainly not executed (as punishment for a crime, using Ol’ Sparky). And as venqax points out, yes, you can be stabbed anywhere, sometimes fatally, sometimes not. However, stabbing implies intention and force, whereas nicking, pricking, puncturing and probably a host of other words, have no such implications. And again, someone can be stabbed to death, or not; they can be stabbed, even multiple times, and still live. We kind of had a similar discussion when DWT talked about suicide (attempted vs “completed”). I don’t remember the details but as they say, you can look it up 🙂

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