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Question #41144 posted on 12/03/2007 3:01 a.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I've heard that in order for an electric shock to be deemed "electrocution", it must be fatal. I had always thought it just meant a pretty bad shock, or maybe a specific type, but I'm sure I can remember hearing people talk, in the past tense, about being electrocuted (thereby being alive to relate the experience). Granted, my main example of this is a minor character from So I Married An Axe Murderer, but still. I guess the question is, is this definition of electrocution wrong, or have I just been hearing people use the word incorrectly?

- Darren Peter Oswald's twin brother, Lee Harvey

A: Dear jello biafra,

What you've heard recently is correct. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary cites this etymology: [Origin: 1885–90, Americanism; electro- + (exe)cute]. The very word itself means a fatality by means of electricity.

A non-fatal electrocution would be correctly referred to as an "electric shock." Or a "taze." Bro.

A: Dear Mr. Oswald,

Of seven references sources at Dictionary.com, six gave definitions which involved death, while one (the Kernerman English Multilingual Dictionary) gave a definition which involved death or injury. The Oxford English Dictionary likewise includes only definitions involving death.

I searched Google News for the word "electrocuted." Of the first 50 articles, only three used the word in a way which did not imply death. The first — "Electrocuted workers from Red Deer recovering" — used the word "electrocuted" in the headline, but "electric shock" in the article, itself, so the headline usage may be attributable to telegraphic style. The second — "elephants electrocuted to death in India" — implies that it's possible to be electrocuted not "to death," but the story comes from an international edition of a French newspaper, and may not have been written by a native English speaker. However, the third — "researchers report on a 54-year-old hydro worker who lost both arms after being electrocuted" — unequivocally refers to someone as having been electrocuted and not having died.

Interestingly, in researching your question, I came across another article which addresses this very issue. In The vote was 4-2, James J. Kilpatrick says:
A few weeks ago, when I was deep in a high and mighty mode, I poked fun at the author of a memorable headline in Asheville, N.C. The headline read, "Crane Operator Electrocuted, in Critical Condition."

Ho, ho, I chortled, someone who is "electrocuted" is not just in critical condition. Gentle reader, that guy is D-E-A-D.

Well, it turns out, yes and no. The vote is 4-2. To be electrocuted is invariably fatal in Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, New World and Random House. In the Oxford and Encarta dictionaries, death takes a holiday. Their easygoing editors say a victim of electrocution may be merely injured. It's a shocking act of lexicographic clemency. In this column, that crane operator is the late crane operator.
So, although most reference sources will tell you that "electrocution" is strictly fatal, I agree with you that that's not always how the word is used in casual conversation, and some dictionaries are starting to reflect that fact.

- Katya