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I have some doubts whether the word "usurp" is still used in the modern language. The doubts are based on reading newspapers and magazines. It looks like expression like "to seize" or "to hold" are used more often in this meaning. So I am interested whether this word is used. Maybe I just didn't came across it somehow.

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closed as not a real question by Roaring Fish, Bravo, tchrist, Mahnax, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Sep 2 '12 at 0:00

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According to Google while usage has certainly declined since the 1800's the word is still far from dead. –  Jim Aug 31 '12 at 7:56
    
Based on reading newspapers and magazines. It looks like expression like "to seize" or "to hold" are used more often in this meaning. So I am interested whether this word is used. Maybe I just didn't came across it somehow. –  Olga S. Aug 31 '12 at 7:58
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Okay... now I see what you are getting at. It may be a good idea to put that background into the question. –  Roaring Fish Aug 31 '12 at 8:08
    
Right, I need to add some details. –  Olga S. Aug 31 '12 at 8:10
    
Just because not all speakers regularly use all words does not make those words that they do not use "archaic". –  tchrist Aug 31 '12 at 13:40

3 Answers 3

Usurp isn't a direct synonym for "to seize / to hold", and it still stands strong in its specific role in the language.

First, you usurp rights or positions, while you can seize or hold physical property (though you may usurp right of ownership). You don't usurp a shovel, you hold it. You don't usurp a bag of chips, you seize it from the table.

Next comes that the word "usurp" is loaded, implying you don't have a title to whatever you usurp. The current president was lawfully elected, he doesn't usurp the title of presidency, he just holds it.

And besides, while seizing or holding is "already a fact", "usurping" may mean an unfulfilled claim, like you usurp some position, while someone else holds it - you try to unseat them and take their place. Like, the runner-up in elections may usurp the presidency, claiming the elected president falsified the results, which (as the speaker implies) is not true.

So, there's no point in comparing it to "hold" or "seize" - that's like you'd say the word "thief" is archaic because it's been supplanted by "businessman".

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There are some cases where apparently-archaic words like usurp or even arrogate are the only words which carry just the right meaning.

Those cases are likely to be specific. For example...

The deputy usurped the superior's authority by issuing that instruction

...where seize isn't really appropriate. He hasn't deposed his manager, or made a sudden move on his position, but he has improperly used an authority he doesn't actually have.

If a word is truly archaic, its use has been completely superseded. I don't think usurp has reached that stage quite yet (as the Ngram demonstrates too — usurp isn't flatlining quite yet).

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If we take a look at Ngram, it looks as though seize has always been used more than usurp.

I am a little wary of Ngram as it searches books scanned by Google, but comparing with basic comparisons at BNC or IntelliText confirms Ngram.

As Jim already mentioned, the use of both is declining, but that could be because it is less needed.

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