April 8, 2013

Case File #013.04.08: EXECUTE

When we say that you execute your duties, we mean that you carry out your legal or social obligations. But when we say that the state executes a criminal, we mean that it kills someone! How did the word execute come to have two such disparate definitions? Well, it might shock you to learn that the two meanings are actually kind of similar. Etymologically speaking, that is. Derived from the Medieval Latin verb executare, meaning “to fulfill” or “to carry out,” execute became part of the English lexicon around the end of the fourteenth century. In the context of legal proceedings, the word was used (as it still is today) in the sense of “to carry out a judgment” or “to carry out a sentence,” and since the courts doled out a lot of death sentences in those days, it only took about a century for execute to become, in addition to its original and more general meaning, a synonym for “to put to death.” So, if you work for the state and it's your job to pull the switch, pull the lever, drop the pellet, or insert the needle, we can now rightly say that you execute your duty when you execute a criminal.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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