Setting down the rules on ‘deposing’

A look at a word with two very different senses alive and well in the news columns.

Themba Hadebe/AP
South Africa's ruling party president Jacob Zuma addresses party delegates to close their policy conference in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 5, 2017.

A good tool for checking on what current utterances have confused the public is Merriam-Webster’s “Latest Trends” list: “Word lookups driven by news events, celebrities, sports, and more.”

Recently it’s given us, for instance, Peter Baker of The New York Times referring in an analysis to a recent “j’accuse moment” in Washington, and Marc Kasowitz, the president’s personal lawyer, issuing a statement that his client felt “vindicated” at that very moment. Both quoted terms prompted spikes in lookups. (For more on how the same moment can be interpreted so differently, see “alternative facts.”)

“Latest Trends” also recently captured the final tweet of the late Zbigniew Brzezinski: “Sophisticated US leadership is the sine qua non of a stable world order.” With his death we’ve lost not only a statesman but a man who used Latin in his tweets, and we’re the poorer for it. 

The “Trend” word that caught my eye the other day, though, was depose. Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island predicted on CNN that special counsel Robert Mueller would eventually “depose” the president. 

Depose has two main meanings. The first refers to forcing a ruler from office. 

The word comes from Latin (deponere) and means essentially to put or set or lay down. The next couple of definitions build on this idea, including a legal sense: A witness deposes (“sets down” or testifies) that something is true. 

Farther down the list comes the second main meaning of depose: the lawyerly usage meaning “to take testimony from” someone: “to depose a witness.” 

That’s presumably what Senator Reed meant. Lawyers use depose this way all the time. “To take a deposition from someone” expresses the same idea less concisely but minus the potential ambiguity. 

But words evolve. The evolution from depose referring to what a witness does to his testimony to depose meaning what a lawyer does to a witness follows larger patterns.

Puzzling over this, I thought back many years to a particular newsroom budget crunch. Money for reporters’ road trips would be tight. As the Monitor’s editorial business manager remarked, “We’ll just have to travel them less for a while.”

“Travel them”? As a transitive verb? Really? I travel, you travel, we are traveled?

I’m not sure how widespread this usage was, but I understood it. And the lawyerly sense of depose with regard to witnesses strikes me as of a piece with all that transitive “traveling” so long ago.

Depose in the sense of “overthrow,” meanwhile, is alive and well in the news columns. Reuters recently reported on a court ruling in South Africa thought likely to embolden efforts “to rebel and depose scandal-plagued President Jacob Zuma.” A recent headline from the Zimbabwean Mail reported “opposition ready to depose frail Robert Mugabe.” If President Trump ever is deposed by Mr. Mueller, he won’t like it. But it will be an easier deposition than what the two African leaders face. 

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