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.
Subscribe and Get a Free eBook: 100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid
- The subscription is completely free, and we only send out one email per week, on Tuesdays
- Our emails are fun and educating and will help you improve your writing skills
- You can unsubscribe anytime you want and keep the e-book as a gift