Which is the worse example of ignorance: misuse of a fairly simple word or misunderstanding its meaning?
My question arises from an early report of a tragic incident in which a 35-year-old man died as a result of an electric shock at a sports centre.
The incident came to my attention through a news Tweet this morning. It stated the man had been electrocuted and had been taken to the major hospital nearby.
No problem in the language, but perhaps a slight ambiguity on the time of death: was it instantaneous, on the road or at the hospital? Either way, full marks to the newsteam for using ‘electrocution’ to mean ‘death as a result of electricity’.
Another Twitter user, however, suggested the news Tweet could be updated, as he had needed to Google the incident to discover if the man had died. Oh dear – only if the original writer had confused ‘electrocution’ with ‘shock’, as many do.
There was an update, saying police had confirmed that the man who had been electrocuted had died. Withdraw full marks awarded earlier!
If you are using big words in public, get them right!
Am I being pedantic or does this really matter?
Every word has one or more legitimate meanings or uses. Over time, our language is enriched by new vocabulary and fresh meanings. Words are great playthings, too. But we should also strive vigorously to prevent the morphing of mainstream meanings into the erroneous, and even the absurd.
‘Electrocution’ is a relatively young word, neatly combining electricity and execution. Its correct uses relate to both capital punishment and accidental death. It does not mean non-lethal electric shock.
I believe the correct use of words is essential if we are to communicate effectively.
David Goddin was born in the UK and educated in South Africa. He began his career on daily newspapers and trade journals, before moving into public relations consulting. He produced award-winning writing and became an Accredited PR Practitioner, the highest qualification of the Public Relations Institute of South Africa. Since his return to the UK 16 years ago he has also contributed to a number of highly successful PR and marketing communications campaigns for major national and multinational clients. He is currently also President of the Haslemere & District Chamber of Trade & Commerce.