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Why You Should Be Careful with the word ‘Electrocution’

An electric utility company crew working on power lines123RF

The meaning of the word ‘electrocution’ has evolved over the years, which can easily cause confusion for your readers.

The English language is always evolving. That’s what you hear from people who want to change a rule in grammar or even a definition of a word. The word electrocution is a good example of linguistic changes.

There was a time when electrocution had a specific meaning. Like the word drown, which means death, to electrocute meant to kill through an electrical shock. But at some point, English “evolved” to include a second meaning for electrocution.

Merriam-Webster now defines its primary use as “to kill or severely injure by electric shock.”

That “severely injure” part is what’s relatively new.

People magazine recently ran an article with this headline: “Wife Recalls Being Electrocuted with Husband in Hot Tub — and the Moment She Heard He ‘Didn’t Make It’”.

If you rely on the traditional meaning of electrocute, the headline makes no sense. A person who falls victim to being electrocuted wouldn’t then be able to “recall” anything. That person would be dead.

The headline, of course, refers to the second, newer meaning of the word. But it’s potentially confusing for readers, especially those who associate only the deadly outcome with the word.

A bad example?

To make matters worse, consider the first example of the word’s use that Merriam-Webster displays:

Because of flawed electrical work by contractors, the bulletin stated, soldiers at U.S. bases in Iraq had received severe electrical shocks, and some had even been electrocuted.

James Risen

If electrocuted meant either killed or severely shocked, the example sentence suggests the opposite. That sentence clearly shows that electrocuted means “death.” Otherwise, “severe electrical shocks” would have fallen under the same word. The dictionary defeated its own definition with its usage example!

The dictionary then offers this alternate example use;

He was working on Pier 38 on the West Side of Manhattan when he was accidently electrocuted by a high-voltage wire. He suffered second- and third-degree burns and had to undergo painful skin grafts.

Robert I. Friedman

Since he had to undergo skin grafts, we can safely assume he did not die. No one performs skin grafts on a corpse, after all. They would be wasting the effort in such an endeavor.

But for many readers, when they see “accidentally electrocuted,” they immediately assume the victim was killed. The next sentence, which details severe injury, only confuses the reader.

A piece of advice

One of the most important things a good writer can do is communicate clearly whatever it is he or she is trying to say.

Here’s where we have to come to a discussion of two not-so-common, but very important words: Connotation and Denotation. A word’s connotation is the meaning that most likely comes to mind when someone hears or reads it. A word’s denotation is a word’s actual meaning. Dictionaries primarily deal with denotations, although they sometimes address connotation as well.

Most words have both. Often, they’re the same. But sometimes, they can be a bit different.

Electrocution is one of those words in which the connotation and denotation do not match up precisely.

Its denotation is the dictionary definition: “to kill or seriously injure by electric shock.” But the word’s connotation, the definition most commonly assumed, is to kill by electric shock. When most people hear someone has been electrocuted, they assume that incident ended in the victim’s death.

You can argue all day that people should know the actual definition. But as long as that pesky connotation remains, if you’re referring to someone who suffered an electric shock but not a fatal electric shock, don’t call it an “electrocution.”

Sure, you might be “correct” to do so from the dictionary definition. But you run the risk of distracting your reader from the message over semantics.

Readers won’t want to be directed to a dictionary. They’ll just

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 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.

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