Shocking vocabulary

Electrocute means, and only means, to put to death by means of a powerful electric current. It should not be used for a mere electric shock.

This was a distinction I hadn’t full appreciated until reading Mind the Gaffe – something of a pedant’s handbook.

Electric chair used in New York's Sing SIng prison

Its first recorded use in English was on 7 June 1889 when New Jersey’s Trenton Times described how a prisoner had volunteered to be ‘electrocuted’ by “testing the new apparatus for executing by electricity”.

New Jersey was not the first state to trial the electric chair, a dubious honour which instead fell to New York. The State of New York set up a committee to determine a more humane method of execution than hanging.

The development of the first electric chair became inextricably linked to the bitter contest between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over electrical standards (the so called ‘war of the currents’). The former had championed direct current (DC) and the latter alternating current (AC).

Thomas Edison by Louis Bachrach, Bachrach Studios, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke

In the end, the first person to be executed by the electric chair was William Kemmler in New York’s Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890.

The “state electrician”, taking the place of the executioner, was Edwin F. Davis. This first attempt was not a huge success, taking several attempts before the prisoner was finally killed. The New York Herald reported:

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#ff0000″ class=”” size=””]“Then from the chair came a sizzling sound, as of [meat] cooking on hand. Following it immediately a billow of smoke came from the body and filled the air of the room with the odor of burning hair.”[/pullquote]

Edison had succeeded in ensuring that Westinghouse’s AC standard was used for the electric chair, and must have been delighted that the verb ‘to Westinghouse’ came to be used for electrocution. George Westinghouse was more succinct, noting that “they could have done better with an axe”.