03 April, 2007


In 1889, there rose a situation that showed in what threatening depths the American genius [for neologism] was floundering. Notes & Queries, in May 11, appealed to its readers: "A New Word Wanted.—Correspondents of American Notes and Queries are requested to send suggestions for a word that shall express execution by electricity." The appeal was accepted as a linguistic challenge not only by the somewhat scholarly readers of Notes & Queries, who began juggling classical roots, but also by others whose response shows a deliberate departure from traditional spontaneity. The North American Review, plunging with zest into the etymological pool, suggested electrolethe. The Saginaw Evening News introduced electricide. The Century Magazine, noting some use of electricution, termed it "recent and colloquial." In the Congressional Record of August 9, 1890, reference was made to electrical execution as the Kemmler process, dubiously honoring not its inventor but the first criminal to experience its final solution. . . Electrocute, a hybrid of Greek electro- plus Latin –cute, eventually won out. But the folk had the last word. Before long, criminals were simply sent to the chair; and everyone, in the American way, got the picture.

— Mary Helen Dohan, The Making of the American Language. Incidentally, American Notes & Queries is still operating, although it has since shortened its name to ANQ and become much more boring. More here on pain and language, surely an underdiscussed topic, anon.


Herr Ziffer said...

A siege perilous, indeed.

Simon Holloway said...

A similar situation in translating electricity into Israeli Hebrew: numerous suggestions, but the word חשמל (khashmal) from Ezekiel 1 won out. This is the word that is oftened translated as "electrum", and which forms part of the substance of Ezekiel's vision.

Needless to say, there was something of an outcry from the religious community that so holy a word could be used to describe so secular an item as common-day electricity.

Robert said...

I believe it was my fiend Sir Thomas Browne who "first coined" the word electricity in English, or at least some thought so.

(I have a good sculpture of him on my Dorsetsculpture and Englishsculpture blogs, see “selfmarks” : Sir Thomas Browne. (What a great “punistic” twist from your elocution).

I assume "The Chair" is off limits, too painful for Unreligious Experiences and certainly not an under discussed topic in 1964 our last execution; much mulled over when I was at school.

We were wondering how the sleep is going and how you would cope with our Nightingale.

Very Happy Easter to you Conrad.

Robert said...

PS He also went to Winchester.

Native Hugh said...

“…Electrocute. That’s another word that’s kind of strange when you break it down. Electro-cute. What’s cute about it? ‘Would you mind putting on this cute little metal hat for me? This is going to be just the sweetest 50,000 volts you ever felt.’ Electro-cute. It’s like, ‘Oh no, we’re not going to hang you. We’re just going to do this little thing we call rope-dee-doo.’”

- Jerry Seinfeld, "SeinLanguage"

Conrad H. Roth said...

Robert: you are correct, Browne is responsible for both 'electricity' ("Crystal will calefy into electricity; that is, a power to attract strawes or light bodies, and convert the needle freely placed"), and 'electric' ("By Electrick bodies, I conceive..such as conveniently placed unto their objects attract all bodies palpable"). I think we can all here agree on a love of Browne.

Sleep is going well, actually; thanks for asking. And well wishes for Easter, likewise.