Lawyers set to be executed

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Melissa Jeltsen, "Lawyers For Mentally Ill Woman Set To Be Executed By U.S. Contract Coronavirus", Huffpost 11/12/2020.

"U.S. Contract Coronavirus" would be an innovative method of execution, but not the most unexpected event of the year.

The obligatory screenshot:

[h/t Rick Rubenstein]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 5:55 am

    For the first time since joining this linguistic community, I find myself deeply distressed by an article therein. I am not stupid, I can see that there are at least two possible interpretations of the headline, one of which is clearly farcical, but the story concerns a woman who is condemned to death. I regret that I cannot find any interest whatsoever in matters linguistic when someone's life lies in the balance. I just hope and pray that her lawyers return to health and are able to succeed in their, and her, plea for clemency.

  2. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 6:44 am

    Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, Scene 2. was prophetic. :)

  3. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 9:39 am


    I guess linguists are susceptible to the same type of “gallows humor” that afflict other professions. I’m sure I’m guilty of it myself among lawyers.

    But you’re right, we probably don’t take death as seriously as we should, especially where it concerns this vengeful barbarity we euphemistically know as the death “penalty”.

  4. Andrew Usher said,

    November 15, 2020 @ 1:06 pm

    I can't see how the name "death penalty " is any kind of euphemism; it's the most neutral description available in English: the penalty of death, both words having their usual meaning.

    I am not of course defending the practice, which certainly does more harm than good in modern society.

    k_over_hbarc at

  5. Haamu said,

    November 15, 2020 @ 1:53 pm

    Both words in "death penalty" contribute to the euphemism.

    "Death" is accurate insofar as it reflects the impact on the condemned person, but it obscures the involvement of the state actor. Many argue that "killing" would be more clear. (Of course, others would call this a dysphemism, which just goes to show that it all depends on your viewpoint.)

    Meanwhile, "penalty," to the extent that it denotes or connotes a legitimate or earned punishment, would be seen as a euphemism from the viewpoint of a condemned person who happens to be innocent, or a person concerned about how application of the penalty discriminates against certain populations, or a person who feels state killing is never legitimate, or a person who sees retribution or spectacle (the latter thankfully less salient nowadays) as unjust motivations for punishment.

    For some of this perspective, I can recommend Camus' essay, "Reflections on the Guillotine."

  6. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    November 15, 2020 @ 9:46 pm

    You’re right. Maybe “euphemism” isn’t the right word. It just seems odd that we should use the same word for judicially-sanctioned killing as we do for a fee you pay the bank for not keeping enough cash in your account to cover bills. Then again, there’s “execution” — the swing of an axe that cleaves head from shoulders, and the push of a button that causes a computer program to run.

    Language is funny. Not “funny” in the sense of… Oh, never mind.

  7. Twill said,

    November 15, 2020 @ 11:40 pm

    @Haamu You could apply most of that argument to label "income tax" a euphemism, as it only taxes certain revenue streams, disproportionately affects workers, obscures the actors involved, and from the standpoint of people who think they're being taxed too much, that that money is wasted, or that taxation is inherently wrong, legitimizes the perceived injustice. I nevertheless wouldn't suppose that the dysphemism of something like "governmental workers' wages theft rate" is a matter of perspective.

  8. Doug said,

    November 16, 2020 @ 7:44 am

    I never thought of "death penalty" as a euphemism, probably because it sounds a lot less euphemistic than the usual alternative, "capital punishment," which avoids saying "death" straight out.

  9. Andrew Usher said,

    November 16, 2020 @ 8:52 am

    Benjamin Orsatti:
    It may seem funny, but it really isn't. The commonality to the uses of the word 'penalty' is that it follows a rule laid out in advance, rather than being made up on the spot. So it's no surprise it's often seen in a legal context. Consider the use of 'penalty' in sports or other games, or the set phrase 'on penalty of …', which can be followed by literally anything. Although 'penalty' is narrower than 'punishment' in the above sense, it's also broader in that it doesn't imply guilt, nor involuntariness.

    'Execution', for the death penalty, clearly originated as a euphemism: one says 'the execution of' the law or the judgement, and that conveniently allows what the 'execution' consists of to be left unspecified – but it's no longer felt as such, and has become just another sense of the word. And though 'killing', as Haamu suggests, is correct, it does not allow formation of a short enough phrase.

    It is true that 'death penalty' is clearly less euphemistic compared to 'capital punishment', but the two are practically synonyms. It _is_ funny that they can't be interchanged: 'death punishment' doesn't work even though it's accurate, while 'capital penalty' is meaningless.

  10. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    November 16, 2020 @ 9:56 am

    Maybe there is (or should be) a linguistics "rule" called the "Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 Rule", namely, that there is a "season" for every word within the universe of a given language. A time for euphemism ("neutralizing" a threat, in spook-speak), a time for dysphemism ("cold-blooded murder"), a time for laser-precision ("state-sanctioned homicide"), and a time for diplomatic ambiguity ("execution").

    Oh, English! you Indo-European Greco-Latino-Germanic mongrel, you! with your ever-expanding θεσαυρος/word-horde, what a useful and poetic tool you are for carving up reality into whatever slices we deem fit!

  11. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    November 16, 2020 @ 10:14 am

    …and for those interested in corpus research, here's what Westlaw has to say about names for state-sanctioned homicide in Pennsylvania state and federal cases decided before 1800:

    "adv: DA(BEF 1/1/1800) AND (sentenc! /s (death OR die))": 6 cases
    "adv: DA(BEF 1/1/1800) AND (pena! /s (death OR die))": 1 case
    "adv: DA(BEF 1/1/1800) AND (capital /s punis!)": 0 cases

  12. ardj said,

    November 16, 2020 @ 3:47 pm

    As usual my thanks to Professor Liberman for spotting what makes this work as an ambiguity, which I had dismissed as merely contrived and trivial. A more explicit legal confusion, if less lethal, comes in this: "Supreme court plans an attack on independent judiciary, says Labour" – [ ]

    Which does not mean I favour execution, but if one cannot jest in the face of death … and yes, even other people's

    Note: Execution, pace Andrew Usher, according to the OED is not a euphemism but a contraction of execute of/to death -tho' no original citations for this usage appear for this or execute, only later ones. The case in French appears to be similar; and I cannot trace a similar use in Latin, although exsequor would allow one to follow vengefully…More generally, I suggest that putting to death is probably the most widely held association nowadays for verb and noun, neither of which most would associate, for instance, with the person who effects performance of a will. So probably not a euphemism for most of us, rather frightening in fact.

  13. Stephen L said,

    November 17, 2020 @ 12:25 am

    > More generally, I suggest that putting to death is probably the most widely held association nowadays for verb

    I can imagine “put to” working well as a euphemism for “execute”. It just feels nice.

    “He was executed!”
    “He was put to!”

  14. ardj said,

    November 17, 2020 @ 5:40 pm

    @Stephen L
    Should anyone overlook the irony of your charming suggestion, I must point out that by "putting to death" I mean killing until entirely dead, possibly with some kind of judicial justification, and until there is no life left, and probably against the will of the thus to-put person

  15. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    November 18, 2020 @ 8:36 am


    Funny (!) you should mention. Far and away the most common reference to the term we are here discussing, in Pennsylvania state and federal cases before 1800 — far more common than "death penalty/sentence" or "capital punishment" — is the rather stark "hanged by the neck until dead".

    I've often thought that, if we had kept using the phrase "hanged by the neck until dead" (or a literal description of the process of "execution" in whatever form it might take), it might have caused jurists to really think about the inhumanity of the act itself.

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    November 18, 2020 @ 9:03 pm

    Yes, that was the old fixed phrase. But remember that we starting by discussing the words using to talk about the practice in general, not in specific cases as those old court records are presumably doing. Even today we can readily say of any one case that the convicted was 'sentenced to die', but would not likely refer to capital punishment in the abstract using those words.

    I agree that using such a phrase could have some marginal effect, though not directly upon the general public.

  17. Twill said,

    November 18, 2020 @ 11:55 pm

    On the contrary, the less desensitized we are to the uglier parts of the life, the more they repulse us. In the same way that vegetarianism is least practiced on the pig farm and most in the cities where meat comes on foam trays, so support for capital punishment eroded in concert with mortality rates and executions going from public spectacles to quietly practiced to in some places an embarrassed, clandestine affair.

  18. Quinn C said,

    November 19, 2020 @ 1:35 am

    Probably in an effort to remember – as a non-native speaker – what "capital punishment" means, I've unconsciously associated it to decapitation, an automatic association that makes it appear much less euphemistic.

    Some of the expressions discussed are maybe better described as veiled (Ger. verhüllend) than euphemistic.

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