If Your iPhone 'Electrocuted' You, You Wouldn't Be Alive To Talk About It

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Last week, a 32-year-old man in the US was nearly electrocuted after falling asleep with his iPhone charging in bed. The key word here is "nearly" - a point of difference many journalists failed to make.

As any English teacher or medical student will tell you, electrocution is not the same thing as an electric shock. While the latter can cause serious injury, only the former results in instantaneous death.

As reported in the SMH, Wiley Day from Huntsville, Alabama was lounging in bed when his metal necklace caught on the exposed prongs of his iPhone charger head. This caused the chain to become a conductor for electricity which travelled into Day's neck. Ouch.

"When I came to and figured out what happened, I literally stood straight up, and I said, 'Oh my God, I think I just got electrocuted,'" Day said.

Given the circumstances, we can forgive Day for committing this common language snafu. (He had just been severely zapped by his iPhone, after all.)

What we cannot forgive are the numerous reputable news sites that ran variations of this headline:

'Man Electrocuted After Falling Asleep With His iPhone Charging'

No he wasn't. If Day had been electrocuted, he would be dead. You wouldn't call a living burn victim "incinerated". This is the same thing.

Here's the official definition of "electrocute" from the Macquarie Dictionary:

electrocute

    verb (t) (electrocuted, electrocuting)

  1. to kill by electricity.
  2. to execute (a criminal) by electricity.

Indeed, the word is a portmanteau of "electricity" and "execution". While it can be used to describe accidental death caused by electric shock, non-fatal injuries usually aren't classed as electrocutions.

This is a mistake we see time and time again. While some dictionaries have tweaked the definition to include "injure", most authorities on the English language - including Merriam-Webster and Macquarie - have stuck to the original meaning. Accuracy matters.


Lifehacker's Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


Comments

    "...only the former results in instantaneous death."

    Since the article is one big nitpick, might I point out that there is nothing in the definition of electrocution that requires death to occur instantly.

      True, but if the voltage is high enough to cause death in humans, the result tends to be instantaneous.

        No it's the current that kills you.

        I don't think that's an accurate observation either. People can survive millions of volts delivered by lightning strike, or tens of thousands delivered in a static shock, so really "voltage high enough" isn't that relevant.

        Similarly, being exposed to a large amount of current won't necessarily kill you either, it depends largely on the path taken through the body. Even a relatively low current can kill by causing fibrillation if it travels through the heart, or by paralysing the diaphragm. In those cases death isn't going to be instantaneous.

        The circumstances of electrocution and the factors that determine what kind of damage occurs to the body are highly variable, so a blanket statement like "instantaneous" is just plain wrong.

        The article comes from a point of pedantry, so there's no hiding from it.

    Breaking news: You may get electrocuted if you sleep with a power cord.

    Just adds to the words "decimated" by journalists...

    He had just been severely zapped by his iPhone, after all.No he hadn't. He was zapped by the charger cable.

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