10/06/2014 02:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

Kill That Euphemism!


The death of the death penalty cannot come too soon.

In the mean time, we can at least tell the truth about the brutal act of the state killing someone, which has long been masked by the words "execute" and "execution": John Doe was executed at 10 p.m. this evening..."

What is actually killed in that sentence is the English language. The word "executed," read literally there, would mean "John Doe was put completely into effect," according to Webster's definition.

Oh yes, the lie has been accepted, even by Webster, because we have long needed "executed" as a euphemism. We don't want to say, "John Doe was killed by the state at 10 p.m..." That is too real.

Grammatically, the phrase arose because a court ordered the killing: the court's order was put completely into effect, to use the above phrase. The order was executed, not John Doe. But the euphemism is needed; we don't want to hear the truth. Do editors require that a court order be involved in the killing in order to use the euphemism? It appears not. For example, media typically report using a phrase like "In Iraq, ISIS executed a hostage." Should we grace that beheading cruelty with the implied trappings of law by calling it "an execution?" Here ISIS, in engaging in beheading, invokes its version of ancient punishment rules in Muslim teaching. But a very similar ancient punishment practice in our own English history was "capital punishment": this literally meant decapitate, to behead, which indeed was done. We have kept that term, euphemized it, so to speak, as "capital punishment" to apply to any legal killing by the state. (We not only decapitated but we drew and quartered people; cutting a person into four parts, "quarters.")

But don't execute (oops) poor old execute. She's a perfectly good word when carrying out her duties "putting things completely into effect." For example, Michelangelo executed "The Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel, his permanent instruction about divine results after all deaths.

Execute just fell in with well meaning, nicey nice words in Euphemism Land: passed away, departed, restroom, the birds and the bees, correctional facility, relocation center and collateral damage. These sometimes well meaning terms, found just behind reality, exist because, supposedly, we can't take the harsh or the rude parts of life. Just say something else, can't you? Underlying the language is the fact of the death penalty. Its faults, mistakes, cruelty, and self-demeaning nature are by now well known. I will not repeat those arguments here. How can we "execute" the death penalty?

Go to legislatures. Ninety million Americans believe the death penalty is wrong. Go to National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Death Penalty Focus and other abolitionist platforms and forums.

How can we educate news media so that they change their style books to avoid the euphemism? Go to the media's reader advocates and editors. Associated Press, the New York Times, etc. Once they change, others will follow.

We have been talking about a shifted meaning: from carrying out a court order as executing it, not the prisoner. A similar shift in meaning gave us "hoosegow." The Spanish word for court and also for a court order is juzgado, sometimes pronounced "hoosegow." It appears that since the order in a criminal case usually was for jail, the meaning of juzgado as an order was elided to be a jail sentence.

In all events, hoosegow does mean jail. [Webster: English slang.] Its derivation: as with the word colorado, juzgado was often pronounced without the d: colorao and juzgao or hoosegow.)

Let us call a killing a killing. A state execution is a killing by any other name. It is time to speak frankly and honestly about the word execute when used to describe the act of killing by the state. It is time to "execute" the euphemism and kill the death penalty and end capital punishment in America.