Dot Wordsworth

Terrorists still can’t ‘execute’ anyone

The word's meaning is shifting – but not that fast

Terrorists still can't 'execute' anyone
Text settings

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.

In this modern business of cold-blooded murder of prisoners, we suffer, however, from the lack of a word to express the act. In the Sunday Times the other day, Sean Langan, who in 2008 had been held captive by the Taleban, and daily threatened with death wrote: ‘The threat of execution was my sword of Damocles.’ One could hardly complain that he did not understand the meaning of the word execute.

Recently, the Times reported the troubles of an ‘Iraqi who worked as an interpreter for the British Army and whose son was executed by militants’. They had kidnapped the son and shot him while on the telephone to his mother. The act was extra-judicial but premeditated.

Any action can be executed, of course: making a statue, destroying a city. A deliberated design or plan is implied. A planned killing may be executed, but for the time being a person may not.