The verb of the American moment

The verb is depose — actually two homophonous verbs, with very different senses (though they share a history). Currently in the US news in one sense because of Helmet Grabpussy’s shrieks that movements towards impeaching him are attempts at a coup, attempts to overthrow him, depose him from office; and in another sense because House committees have been summoning witnesses to give sworn testimony, to be deposed formally.

From NOAD, the split, with deponent verbs as as a bonus:

verb depose: [with object] 1 remove from office suddenly and forcefully: he had been deposed by a military coup. 2 Law testify to or give (evidence) on oath, typically in a written statement: every affidavit shall state which of the facts deposed to are within the deponent’s knowledge. 3 Law question (a witness) in deposition. ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French deposer, from Latin deponere (see deponent), but influenced by Latin depositus [cf. English deposit] and Old French poser ‘to place’ [cf. English pose, position, posture, etc.].

adj. deponent: Grammar (of a verb, especially in Latin or Greek) passive or middle in form but active in meaning. noun 1 Grammar a deponent verb. 2 Law a person who makes a deposition or affidavit under oath. ORIGIN late Middle English: from Latin deponent- ‘laying aside, putting down’ (in medieval Latin ‘testifying’), from the verb deponere, from de- ‘down’ + ponere ‘place’. The use in grammar arose from the notion that the verb had ‘laid aside’ the passive sense (although in fact these verbs were originally reflexive).

Put down the king; put down the facts (in writing or in oral testimony).

Deposing a ruling authority. The coup de grâce is often violent; hanging and beheading are popular final strokes, though there are more colorful alternatives (defenestration, for example). But deposing is mostly just a matter of stripping the top official of their authority, and that’s deeply humiliating.

I give you Shakespeare’s Richard II, in the history play of that name. From Act IV, Scene 1:


(#1) Ben Whishaw as Richard II in a BBC2 production

You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those

Instead of the more famous and weighty Derek Jacobi performance, I give you a recent, decidedly eccentric one. From the Guardian‘s tv review by Tim Dowling on 7/1/12, a characterization of Whishaw’s Richard II as “camp, flutey and painfully self-conscious”. (The character allows for an extraordinary range of interpretations, including agonized effeminacy.)

Deposing a witness. Rather more up-to-date, in a Washington Post story “Impeachment inquiry erupts into battle between executive, legislative branches” on 10/1/19 by Karen DeYoung, Josh Dawsey, Karoun Demirjian and John Hudson:


(#2) Marie Yovanovitch, former US ambassaor to Ukraine, at her deposition on 10/11 before three House committees

But much of the day’s turmoil centered on [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo, who said in a letter to the chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform committees heading the investigation that five State Department officials called to give depositions over the next two weeks would not appear as scheduled.

But Yovanovitch appeared, and deposed away for hours.

2 Responses to “The verb of the American moment”

  1. John Baker Says:

    Note that, as correctly stated in NOAD, one deposes in writing in an affidavit by giving evidence, but one deposes in a deposition by questioning the witness. So Yovanovitch did not depose for hours, but was deposed.

  2. [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky, surely as qualified a linguist as any, examines current verb of the American moment, […]

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