Grammar

Electrocution Means Death…Except When It Doesn’t

When someone refers to an electrocution, that used to automatically mean a death had occurred.

I saw a promo for a daytime soap opera the other day that mentioned an electrocution. It’s unusual for a running character of a soap opera to actually die. It’s fairly usual, however, for a soap opera (and many other scripted programs, for that matter) to tease of a character’s “demise” only to have the character meet a different fate.

In this case, a young woman was pushed into an electrical panel that sparked just convincingly enough to imply there had actually been an electrocution.

Electrocution, in its traditional meaning, requires death. Electrocution was always a fatal event. Otherwise, it was merely a bad shock.

The word electrocute was coined in 1889, according to Etymonline.com, and meant “to execute by electricity.” The method was first used on August 6, 1890 in New York State on a man convicted of murdering his common-law wife. The electric chair was also first recorded in 1889.

At some point, an alternate meaning of electrocution came into play, and it’s that alternate meaning, the “bad but non-lethal shock,” that causes a great deal of confusion.

I might suggest that there are times when an electrocution does occur, but thanks to advances in resuscitation techniques, what would otherwise have been a lethal dose of electricity may be reversible. In those cases, someone may be electrocuted, but may be able to be saved. This will naturally muddy the word’s meaning, but at least a life will have been saved.

Ideally, the person who was resuscitated, at that point, would no longer be referred to as having been “electrocuted.” In any case, someone who was never technically dead should never be called “electrocuted” when they experience a bad shock.

Language is about communication, and when a word’s meaning begins to shift from something definite to something vague, that affects the clarity of the message.

I hope you’ll agree that a word like electrocution should, whenever possible, be restricted to use in which a death has occurred. That’s the easiest way to eliminate confusion when a non-fatal incident involving electricity occurs.

4 Comments

  1. ‘Language is about communication, and when a word’s meaning begins to shift from something definite to something vague, that affects the clarity of the message.’

    The first part is true. But whether you or anyone else likes it or not language evolves. Yes some of the words and meanings lexicographers add are odd choices to be sure. But too bad. You know what it would be like if they didn’t? Old English. Do you know much about Old English? I know a bit and it’s very very different. Here’s not all that old but still a difference:

    The H in ‘historic’ used to be silent. Thus if someone wrote or said ‘an historic’ it could be that they were not pronouncing the ‘H’. In some cases they are and thus it’s wrong but nevertheless the H in historic used to be silent. From OED:

    ‘USAGE
    Is it ’a historical document’ or ’an historical document’? ‘A hotel’ or ‘an hotel’? There is still some divergence of opinion over which form of the indefinite article should be used before words that begin with h- and have an unstressed first syllable. In the 18th and 19th centuries people often did not pronounce the initial h for these words, and so an was commonly used. Today the h is pronounced, and so it is logical to use a rather than an. However, the indefinite article an is still encountered before the h in both British and American English, particularly with historical: in the Oxford English Corpus around a quarter of examples of historical are preceded with an rather than a.’


    As an aside: a similar thing happens with the word ‘herb’ because for whatever reason Americans pronounce it with a silent H.

    Remember that etymology is not the same thing as definition. Basically you’re wrong. The dictionary also says this:

    ‘the injury or killing of someone by electric shock: they switched off the power supply to avoid any risk of electrocution | death row inmates face either electrocution or lethal injection.’

    Note the word OR.

    1. Keep in mind, Cody, that a dictionary does not provide permission of usage as a word is defined. It only provides definitions of how words are used — even, at times, incorrectly. That’s why words like “irregardless” are in dictionaries. It’s not a valid word, but it’s included not because it’s acceptable but rather to help people understand what someone meant to say.

  2. Really? It strikes me that if you were electrocuted and died, then were resuscitated, you WERE electrocuted, but revived. The key is “if not resuscitated, would they have remained dead?”.

    Obviously you can stretch the definition of “dead”, but as you say electrocuted means dead. FOr me, that means no pulse and no breathing. Unsustainable biological functions.

    If you are revived 3 minutes later, or 30 minutes later if under the ice, you were still dead for 3 minutes, or 30. Being revived means exactly that, given life again.

    Similarly, resuscitation is derived from suscitate, to call to life or action. My guess is that the assumption was that resuscitate and revive mean different things, but they actually both mean to bring back to life 🙂

    1. Hi, Alex, you’re right that if the shock killed you, you’re electrocuted.

      But once the victim is brought back to life, if one says they were electrocuted, people will assume they did NOT survive. My point was that once the person is resuscitated, you have to be careful when using the word electrocuted because it could easily lead to a miss understanding without context.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.