Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language: Dot Wordsworth

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language: Dot Wordsworth

Article excerpt

Credit: Dot Wordsworth

During the sudden advances of ISIS in Iraq, one visual image stood for their brutality. As the Daily Mail reported it, there was 'a propaganda video depicting appalling scenes including a businessman being dragged from his car and executed at the roadside with a pistol to the back of his head'.

I've heard from friends in the press, though not at the Daily Mail , that this description enraged readers. It wasn't the fact, but the use of the word executed . This, they pointed out, meant the commission of a sentence imposed by a court, which was certainly not the case here.

To execute , as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, is 'to carry into effect ministerially a judicial sentence. The OED doesn't decide what words ought to mean, but records the meanings in which they have been used. At an execution, the executioner is in a similar position as the executor is with regard to a will. He doesn't decide upon the action to be taken but behaves as the agent of the law. Although it was traditional, when we had beheadings, for the executioner to ask forgiveness from the condemned person, there was really nothing to be forgiven -- indeed one couldn't be forgiven in advance for a wicked act. …

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