The Grammarphobia Blog

Gallows rumor

Q: It seems to me that the word “executor” has two pronunciations, one for the person who carries out the terms of a will, and another for the person who carries out the sentence in a capital crime. Am I right about this?

A: Yes and no. The use of “executor” for a hangman is now considered obsolete (we’ll get to this later), but there are indeed two different kinds of “executor” in modern usage, and most people pronounce them differently.

(1) The one we meet most often is accented on the second syllable (ig-ZEK-yuh-ter). It means a person who executes the terms of a will (as in “Mr. Beazley is my late father’s executor”).

(2) Less frequently we hear the one accented on the first syllable (EK-suh-kyoo-ter). This means a person who executes something else or gets it done (“The sculptor is both designer and executor”).

Those are the pronunciations assigned to the two meanings in almost every reference we checked—the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and half a dozen other dictionaries and usage guides.

Only one source, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), says the pronunciations are interchangeable. In our opinion, pronouncing “executor” indiscriminately is likely to raise a few eyebrows.

In both of those definitions, #1 and #2, something’s being executed, and here the verb “execute” means to carry out, produce, or put into effect.

But, as you know, to “execute” also means to put to death. And once upon a time, an “executor” (pronounced EK-suh-kyoo-ter) meant someone who executes a condemned prisoner. But this sense of “executor” has been replaced by “executioner.”

Our verb “execute” was first recorded in English in 1387, according to OED citations. Interestingly, it was recorded more than a century after “executor,” circa 1280.

Both words came into English from Anglo-Norman, but their ultimate source is the Latin verb exsequi, which is composed of ex plus sequi—literally “to follow out,” or pursue to the end.

Originally, to “execute” something was to perform its functions (as in “to execute the office”).

In the following century, the word acquired most of its other senses, including one first recorded in 1413 and defined this way in the OED: “To carry into effect ministerially (a law, a judicial sentence, etc.).”

The meaning of “execute” that we associate with the gallows came along 70 years later, in 1483. How did it gets its meaning? This remains a puzzle.

“It is not quite clear,” says the OED, whether the capital punishment usage grew out of the 1413 sense of the word (that is, to put a judicial sentence into effect), or whether it partly represents “the etymological notion of Latin exsequi ‘to pursue to the end.’ ”

With that, we’ve pursued this subject to the end.

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