Last Updated on October 1, 2017
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.