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Electrocution: A Shocking Misuse?

Recently the word electrocute appeared in Merriam-Webster's "Seen and Heard" page. The most recent comment reads, "Heard it used incorrectly on a popular television program on ABC. People frequently use it to mean merely 'shocked,' when in fact it is fatal." It's a common complaint about a common usage, but as with most usage complaints, it's not that simple. The argument is that electrocute only means "to kill with electricity," not "to shock with electricity." The purists have etymology on their side — but only to a degree.

The word electrocute was coined as a blend of electro- and execute to refer, obviously enough, to execution by administration of electricity. During the War of Currents in the late 1880s, Thomas Edison tried to scare people into thinking that his opponent George Westinghouse's alternating current was unsafe and that his own method, direct current, was therefore better. Edison gave public demonstrations in which he killed animals, including a circus elephant named Topsy, which had killed three men, with alternating current. (Though these demonstrations may have garnered Edison some attention, they didn't work; today we use alternating current for power transmission.)

Edison did, however, convince many that alternating current was a suitable means of carrying out executions. In response to the perceived need for a method of execution that was more humane than hanging, two of Edison's employees developed the electric chair, and the first execution by it was carried out in New York State 1890. Even though there were questions about electrocution's humaneness from its inception, it nevertheless caught on and was adopted by many states.

Some immediately objected to this new form of capital punishment — and to the word used to describe it. People were bothered not by the word's misuse but by its very existence. As Ben Zimmer shared with me, an 1895 issue of Stoves and Hardware Reporter repeated a claim that "bike and electrocute are about the worst travesties on words that ever were foisted upon a long-suffering public," and the word was used in Webster's New International Dictionary to illustrate a barbarism, that is, "a word or phrase not in accepted use": "'to electrocute' is a barbarism." And in an 1891 issue of The Engineering Magazine, the author of an article on electricity went so far as to say, with more than a little hyperbole, that "the Barbarity of  the Word Electrocute exceeds by far that of the process of killing which it indicates." The author considered several other alternatives before recommending his own coinage, "the easily spoken and euphonious 'katelextrize.'" Perhaps unsurprisingly, his form did not win out. The public had already settled on electrocute.

But by 1889, before the first official electric execution of a person had even been carried out, the word was already being used to refer simply to electric shocks. How could the word have gone off the rails so early on? Simple: it was useful. Electricity was a new thing, and people needed to new words to describe their experiences with it. Relatively few people have ever been put to death with electricity, but many people have received a nonfatal electric shock at some point in their lives. And anyway, do we really need a word to describe dying from an electric shock, or more specifically, being executed with electricity? We seem to get by just fine without words for execution by firing squad or lethal injection, and even hang and behead or decapitate can refer to accidental or intentional deaths that aren't executions.

But the purists today aren't even insisting on preserving electrocute for executions, in spite of its etymology; they usually just say that it can only refer to fatal electric shocks, even accidental ones. If they're trying to keep the word pure by rejecting changes in meaning, they've already lost. Or perhaps they recognize that having a word for electric executions isn't that useful — or they're ignorant of the word's origin — and they're simply trying to hang on to a more useful distinction between merely receiving an electric shock and dying from an electric shock. But even if that's the case, since the word has been used both ways since its infancy, it seems the battle was lost before it was begun.

The changing objections to electrocute illustrate quite nicely how quickly attitudes to a particular word or usage can change. At first, people may simply hate a new word and argue for alternatives. Then comes grudging acceptance, but with reservations: the word can only be used to mean this, not that. And finally, even those objections begin to fall away, though purists may continue to be irked by what they perceive as misuse for quite some time. It's a cycle that's repeated over and over again as language changes. People will always find something new to complain about. Shocking, I know.

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Jonathon Owen is a copy editor and book designer with a master's degree in linguistics from Brigham Young University. His thesis explores the role of copyediting in regulating English usage, and he holds the paradoxical view that it's possible to be a prescriptivist and descriptivist simultaneously. He writes about usage, editing, and linguistics at arrantpedantry.com, and he also writes a column on grammar for Copyediting newsletter. In his free time he likes to play Scrabble and design word-nerdy t-shirts. You can follow him on Twitter at @ArrantPedantry Click here to read more articles by Jonathon Owen.