Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Worse than being electrocuted?

with 17 comments

Probably the most famous American electric cha...
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A number of new words and phrases have been added to the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE). These include:

  • Vuvuzela: the metre-long horn beloved of football fans.
  • Toxic debt: loans that probably won’t be repaid.
  • Hikikomori: a Japanese word that describes acute social withdrawal in teenage boys.

You can read more on this in the Guardian.

The ODE‘s announcement provoked the usual indignation, discussions and disagreements and also reminded me of something both interesting and funny that I read a while ago in The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing by Casey Miller and Kate Swift:

…despite the hospitality of English to outside as well as internal influences, many people, including many language experts, become upset when confronted  with new words or grammatical modifications they happen not to like.

H. W. Fowler, whose widely used Dictionary of Modern English Usage was first published in 1926, deplored such “improperly formed” words as amoral, bureaucrat, speedometer, pacifist, and coastal, terms so commonly used today we take them for granted. His scorn for electrocute (formed by analogy to execute) pushed him beyond compassion or reason. The word, he wrote, “jars the unhappy Latinist’s nerves much more cruelly than the operation denoted jars those of its victims”.

Neologisms — new words and phrases

Am I allowed to say that?


17 Responses

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  1. Ahhh, I’m glad there’s now a word for adolescent anti-social shenanigans. I’ll have to rehearse this so that I can deliver the line with the appropriate flourish…”Any more Hikikomori from you and you’re grounded!”


    18/09/2010 at 12:18 am

    • Yes, at least they’ll be puzzled.

      The word sounds quite poetic to me — as if it should be describing something positive — even lovely — rather than negative. It’d be interesting to know if it’s a newly-coined or adapted Japanese word, or just one that’s new to us.


      18/09/2010 at 9:17 am

      • I agree, it is a beautiful word – far too pretty to be applied to smelly, surly teenagers. I like the sharp stuttering sound of ‘hikik’combined with the softer, romantic sound of ‘omori’. It’s very fluid and fun to say.


        18/09/2010 at 2:09 pm

  2. “Hikikomori: a Japanese word that describes acute social withdrawal in teenage boys.”

    I though the descriptive term was teenage boys? A metamorphic stage between child and human being. Most species that go through such a stage, of course, have the decency to pupate, a state teenage boys instinctively try to recreate in their bedrooms.


    18/09/2010 at 12:43 am

    • Hi, Ron — yes, good point! Thanks.


      18/09/2010 at 8:50 am

    • Ron, that made me laugh out loud and I’m still chortling. Ahh..the eternal mystery of the male adolescent pupation. I’ve had a pupating teen in my house for about 3 years now. Any word on when I can expect him to burst all shiny and energetic from his chrysalis to start speaking in full sentences and help around the house?


      18/09/2010 at 2:05 pm

  3. Funnily enough I was thinking of asking you if you had ever done a post on “electrocute”. People so misuse it.
    The other day a friend returned from a holiday in Turkey. When packing to return he had pulled the plug adaptor from the hotel-room wall and one of the two prongs remained in the socket.
    Without thinking he foolishly grabbed it to pull it out.
    When someone else told his own son that this friend who played with him had been electrocuted, the little boy said “Is he dead?”
    Everyone thought this funny because the lad was only wondering if he would lose his PlayStation partner.
    I pointed out that maybe he was correcting his English. If you are electrocuted, you are very much DEAD, not just shocked.
    So many times people use the word for a mild shock.
    The friend? It’s OK, the circuit breaker cut off the power as soon as he touched the point…


    18/09/2010 at 10:46 am

    • Hi, Pat — thank goodness for that!

      ‘Electrocute’ is a funny word. I can’t quite get to the bottom of it. The Merriam-Webster definition says it means to ‘execute a criminal by electricity’ or to ‘kill by electric shock’. But Oxford Dictionaries says it can mean to ‘injure or kill someone by electric shock’. This surprised me — I would always assume, I think, that electrocution = death. Thanks, Pat.


      18/09/2010 at 3:14 pm

      • I think it’s our old friend common usage at work here. If not electrocute, what is the verb for being zapped by/with electricity? Electrify doesn’t really work that well.

        Electrocute is pretty much universally used to mean an unfortunate conjunction of person and electricity, whether fatal or not, and has been for some years – decades, even.

        There seems to be no viable alternative.


        18/09/2010 at 6:30 pm

        • Hi, Ron — yes, I was thinking the same thing (re. a suitable verb). I haven’t been able to think of an alternative. And ‘electrify’ sounds positive, somehow, rather than negative! (Good pun I unintentionally made there.)


          18/09/2010 at 6:42 pm

  4. There’s nothing wrong with neologisms when they fill a void. Since newfangled electricity replaced hanging and whatnot, we needed a new word for the new form of punishment. Perhaps same with bureaucrat, speedometer, and pacifist: all filled a newly created void.

    I doubt amorality is new, but what other word describes the condition as well? No idea about coastal, but littoral sounds too fancy.

    To me, the only bad new words are corruptions or misunderstandings (e.g., straight-laced) or empty, silly words like staycation.

    Michael Farrell

    20/09/2010 at 6:23 am

    • I don’t like ‘staycation’ either and would never use it. I had to look up ‘littoral’ — I’ve never come across that word before. An adjective meaning ‘related to or situated on the shore’ and a noun meaning ‘a region lying along a shore’. It comes from Latin. I wonder why some words become so common and everyday and others are neglected and simply don’t catch on — and then, as you say, can sound pretentious if they are ever used. Thanks, Michael.


      20/09/2010 at 8:22 am

  5. LA Times headline: “Couple electrocuted while stealing copper wire.” The text makes it clear that only the man died:

    “A man was electrocuted and died as he and a female partner tried to steal copper wire from an electrical vault in South Gate. The woman tried to pull him away from the vault when it caught fire and exploded, but the electricity traveled through her body and she received severe burns. Two small children were found in a truck 15 feet from the accident but were not injured.” [Ed: shaking head.]

    I initially thought this was wrong; I thought you had to die, by intent, for it to be electrocution, but I was wrong (yes, again). While the word might have been formed to describe a new means of capital punishment, my BFD says it now includes mere injury caused by accidental shock.

    Michael Farrell

    25/10/2010 at 4:40 pm

    • Hi, Michael — that’s a really interesting example, thanks very much for sharing it here. The wider meaning of ‘electrocution’ to include injury as well as death is also the one given in the Oxford Dictionary of English. It’s strange that ‘electrocute’ does sound so final, somehow.


      25/10/2010 at 5:56 pm

  6. So, I tweeted the Guardian, well ‘Guardianstyle’, actually, as they call themselves in a not very successful running words together kind of a way. Here’s what I said:

    Electrocution means to injure as well as kill? Oxford Dictionaries says yes. Your corrections column says no. What say you?

    Yes, I know, some people have lives. That’s not the point here. Anyways, tweety answer came there this:

    Electrocution: death from electric shock, whether deliberate (as in the electric chair and suicide) or accidental.

    This led me to check the paper’s style guide. Here’s the entry:

    Death by electric shock, so don’t say survivors of torture were “electrocuted” during their ordeal – rather that they were given electric shocks.

    I then checked out Garner’s Modern American Usage, but he, nightmarishly, only has an entry for ‘electric; electrical; electronic’. That’s definitely not the sort of thing to be considering on a day that ends with a ‘y’.

    So, my conclusion on ‘electrocute’ is dunno and um. You pays your money and you takes your choice, I suppose.


    05/03/2011 at 3:34 pm

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