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The verb execute has 2 different but somewhat opposite meanings: to run and to kill.

Plus, there are at least 3 words derived from this verb:

  • executive: a person who runs an organization;

  • executor: a person who executes a will;

  • executioner: a person who kills criminals;

I'm having a hard time remembering which is which. I'd like to understand where it means "to run" and where "to kill". To be specific, my questions are:

  1. Is it always true that executor means "runner" and executioner means "killer"?

  2. What can be run by an executor? Can we say command executor, law executor, plan executor, etc.? Can we say business executor instead of business executive?

  3. Does executable mean "can be run", "can be killed", or either depending on context? I think we can say executable programs, but can we say executable criminals?

  4. Same but for executive (when used as adjective). For example, in these sentences:

    His executive skills will be very useful.

    The executive process went smoothly.

    Is it clear if executive here means "running a business" or "killing someone"?

  5. When someone mentions "the power of execution", are we sure it's about leadership but not a firing squad?

  • I was initially confused by your use of run. My first interpretation of that verb is to move very quickly. I figured your use of run out in context, but I think manage would have been a better word to use, since it's less open to misinterpretation. Also note that an executor neither runs (manages) nor kills anything; they finalize, employ, or process a will. – Jason Bassford Jun 19 at 15:22
  • @JasonBassford Yes, run is another word that can cause ambiguity. But this topic is about execute, so from context it means "operate" not "race". Actually I started thinking about this problem after I ran and killed a Windows ".exe" application (executable). That's where "run" comes from. – Cyker Jun 19 at 21:31
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The basic meaning is "follow out" (from Latin ex-sequor) in the sense of "follow instructions to completion".

From this come the general meaning "carry out a procedure", implicit in "executive" and "executor".

It has also acquired a more specific meaning of "carry out the procedure of killing as a legal punishment", and "executioner" is specific to this sense. (This is occasionally extended to non-legal killing). Neither "executive" nor "executor" is used in this sense.

The verb "execute" and the noun "execution" can be used in either sense: only context will distinguish them. Ambiguity is possible, but rare because there is usually enough context to clarify.

  • Thank you for explaining the general and specific meanings of "execute". If both "executive" and "executor" have the general meaning, why do we call senior management staff in a company "business executive" but not "business executor"? At first glance, "executor" is the proper agent noun for "execute", while "executive" looks like an adjective. – Cyker Jun 19 at 21:43
  • I'm sorry to disappoint you, @Cyker, but I'm afraid that the whole of the answer to that question is "because that's how English is". There is no rule, logic, or explanation to it. Languages are the way they are, not the way somebody thinks they ought to be. – Colin Fine Jun 20 at 18:30
  • And you are right, @Cyker, that executive is an adjective. But it has also become a noun. – Colin Fine Jun 20 at 18:32
  • Not quite disappointed. That's actually one of the answers I'm expecting. Thank you for confirming this. – Cyker Jun 20 at 20:16
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  1. I've only ever seen "executioner" as meaning "killer" (although there are some nuances to the word).

    I feel like "executor" isn't used commonly, but it can mean "the person who makes something happen", especially wills.

    For example - He named his daughter as his executor. It means that he appointed his daughter to make sure the instructions left in his will are carried out. (Merriam Webster)

  2. I've never come across any of command executor, law executor, plan executor.

  3. The meaning of 'executable' depends on context. You could say 'executable criminals, but it would make you sound like someone with no value for human life.

  4. 'Executive' refers to running a business, or a person who's very high up in the business hierarchy. "Executive powers" = powers belonging to an executive. (Macmillan Dictionary)

  5. I would understand the phrase "the power of execution" from context.

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