Google gives the definition of the word usurp as

Take (a position of power or importance) illegally or by force.

and cites the Oxford English dictionary.

This definition means that someone who takes something rightfully, but by force would be a usurper. I have never seen such a usage of the word in modern English.

Has this been a recent change in definition? If not, where is the word used this way?

  • 1
    Usurp: take something illegally or by force, but not rightfully.
    – user 66974
    Nov 30 '21 at 20:46
  • 2
    Hm, I don't know that the "OR" in the definition should be parsed so literally as to mean "either illegally, or by force [but rightfully]." In general, it's best to triangulate a word's definition with multiple sources. Can we find any source that supports the notion of a "rightful usurpation"? —Or am I misunderstanding, and is your question about whether "usurper" is a word? Nov 30 '21 at 20:46
  • (Also, perhaps the distinction is between "legal" and "rightful." A usurper is usually immediately in a position to say what is legal and what is not, and declare their actions legal.) Nov 30 '21 at 20:48
  • 1
    "To seize and hold (office, place, functions, powers, etc.) in possession by force or without right" m-w
    – DjinTonic
    Nov 30 '21 at 20:52
  • The question of what someone has the right to do is far from simple (otherwise Americans wouldn't spend all that time arguing over the Constitution). So there are always going to be edge cases and instances where it's not clear if someone has the right to take power or not.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 1 '21 at 10:02

Never rely on only one dictionary in a case of this sort.

The Merriam Webster dictionary (online) gives the following.

to take power or control of something by force or without the right to do so:

The Cambridge English dictionary (also online) gives

to take control of a position of power, especially without having the right to:

Merriam goes on to provide the etymology to this word.

Middle English, from Anglo-French usorper, from Latin usurpare to take possession of without legal claim, from usu (aBLATIVE OF usus use) + rapere to seize.

It is obvious, though, that the idea of usurpation can stretch beyond the original idea of seizing some form of constitutional or legal right by the use of force to exercising the role/right/power of someone constitutionally or legitimately holding it by the use of force, possibly military, possibly personality. For example, the first example in the Cambridge dictionary is seizing the powers to which local authorities are entitled.

Local control is being usurped by central government.

Central government in the UK has the power to take take over what has traditionally been regarded as belonging to local government. So this usage is stretching the standard meaning. The idea is quasi-metaphorical. Something that has traditionally belonged to the local authority has been taken over by central government. It can, just by passing a law. But it shouldn't.

Usage often stretches the original meanings in this way.

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