Be careful when using the word ‘depose’

Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr

Many people are saying that President Trump should be “deposed.” But please don’t alert the Secret Service of a coup.

When a New York state court refused a stay requested by President Trump in a defamation suit filed by a former contestant on The Apprentice, The Washington Post said that an attorney for the contestant “did not immediately respond to requests for comment about what her team would do next, including whether they would proceed with discovery or seek to depose Trump in the case.”

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In the Nexis database, that citation is close to one reporting that “the United States was not seeking to depose” the Korean leader Kim Jong-un; one discussing a political maneuver called “the ‘Libya model’ (in which its leader was deposed and then killed in rebel custody)”; and one discussing Nicaragua, where “a popularly elected president, Manuel Zaylaya, had been deposed in a military coup in 2008.”

You’ve probably figured out by now that there is more than one way to “depose” a head of state.

The earliest recorded use of “depose” was as a verb around 1300, the Oxford English Dictionary says, in this somewhat enigmatic sentence: “Theo kyng dude him [a justise] anon depose.” The OED lists that as “To put down from office or authority; esp. to put down from sovereignty, to dethrone. (The earliest and still the prevailing sense.)” The discussions of Kim, “the Libya model,” and Nicaragua all relate to that kind of “depose.”

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Later in that same century, that usage of “depose” gained the added sense of “To put down, bring down, lower (from a position or estate)” and “To take away, deprive a person of (authority, etc.); also to remove (a burden or obligation).” That last was considered an opposite of “impose”: I can “impose” a burden by giving it to you, then “depose” it by taking it away. Sadly, that usage is now considered obsolete.

Then, between 1475 and 1500, the OED says, the verb “depose” took on another meaning: “To testify, bear witness; to testify to, attest; esp. to give evidence upon oath in a court of law, to make a deposition.”

Where does that come from?

Latin, of course. “Deponere,” to be precise, which means “to put down.”

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Indeed, the second definition of the verb “depose” in Merriam-Webster is “to put down: deposit.” (And how many of you are now recognizing the “deposit” in “deposition”?)

“Depose” rose to the top of M-W lookups in 2017 after reports that the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, wanted to “depose” Trump.

The noun “depose” showed up at the end of the 14th century, the OED says, meaning “The state of being laid up or committed to some one for safe keeping; custody, keeping, charge.”

Stay with us. There’s more sense in this than might appear at first. The legal “deposition” is effectively a deposit of one person’s version of events, put down to be kept safe and used in legal proceedings.

Now think of what happens with the sovereign being removed from office. He or she is also being “put down.” The verb “to put down” is almost as old as the verb “depose,” showing up in the late 14th century with the meaning “To move to or bring into a lower position; to lower,” the OED says. “To put down” also meant “To depose from office or authority; to dethrone; to diminish in status or dignity.”

And lest you think that the slang “to put down” meaning to disparage is a modern invention, sorry: It also traces to olden times, where around 1440 it meant “To bring down the presumption, pride, or self-esteem of (a person); to snub; to better in argument, to reduce to silence. Also (now chiefly): to disparage, find fault with, esp. in a humiliating or belittling manner.”

In other words, a sovereign who is “deposed” is both deposited on a lower level (taken down a peg or two, if you will) and disparaged by those who “deposed” him.

Most of the time, the legal “depose” is used far more often than the one indicating a coup. But in the current political climate, it’s important to make clear which form of “depose” is being applied.

“Depone,” meanwhile, lives on in law, the American Heritage Dictionary notes, as the transitive verb meaning “to depose” and the intransitive verb meaning “to give testimony by affidavit or deposition.” More often, its noun form “deponent” shows up, referring to the person making the “deposition.” That makes more sense than calling the person a “depositor,” especially because a bank has nothing to do with.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.