usurp

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Barack Obama said, “there’s not an action that I take that you don’t have some folks in Congress who say that I’m usurping my authority. Some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency.”

So tell me, r u surp-rised to see usurp used in that way? “Usurp my authority” – as opposed to usurping someone else’s authority, or simply usurping authority? It sounds slightly odd to at least some people, perhaps even spurious. What does usurp refer to? Taking something that you are not entitled to – typically a place, a power, an ownership, or some similar position of right or prerogative – usually by depriving the entitled person of it. Most often a usurper is someone who deposes a rightful ruler.

So some fellows in congress feel that Obama is claiming authority that he is not entitled to. But who is rightly entitled to it? If it’s congress, many people would say that he’s usurping congress’s authority, not his own.

Funny, though. If a guy is driving a car and someone else thinks it’s stolen, can he say “That guy thinks I stole my car”? Or does he need to say “That guy thinks I stole my car from someone else”? The argument structure may be the same – or may not, depending on your personal experience and use of the word. But many people would expect that a posessive in a case such as this expresses the original or proper owner unless there is further assignment of that role. So… when the posessive is expressing the new possessor, not the original, is it usurping its role, or the original’s role, or, um, what?

Do be careful, whatever you determine, not to use up this word as you slurp it in your mouth over and over. It’s already worn down some. It comes, you see, from a Latin word usurpare which is formed from usus ‘use’ and a crunched version of rapere ‘seize’ (whence raptor, rapid, and some similar words). So ‘seize the use of something’. As perhaps some other word usurped the e and the s when usus and rapere met. And if one pursues the usurper, one should be careful lest he or she usurp the e and s again and leave one mixed up.

Thanks to Barb Adamski for suggesting usurp and directing me to the Obama quote.

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