Word: usurp

Pronunciation: yoo-SƏRP

Part of Speech: verb

Definition: take a position of power or importance illegally or by force

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Virtually every fan of medieval stories should be familiar with this week’s vocabulary word. It’s not uncommon to see characters of fantasy and history alike “usurp” a throne or high rank from an unpopular ruler. Being fascinated with the Middle Ages myself, I’ve read my fair share of tales about monarchs and tyrants being overthrown from power, and though the specific word for it isn’t always used, the action does always make for an exciting story!

To “usurp” a high position of power is to take it by force or otherwise illegal means. The word arose in Middle English and was used in the sense “to wrongfully appropriate a right”. This verb can be traced back through the Old French verb usurper to the Latin verb usurpare, meaning “to seize for use”.

Though I was already well familiar with the word “usurp”, I admit I began showing a greater interest in it when I started reading A Game of Thrones (still on the first book and haven’t watched the series yet, so no spoilers, please!), as it seems to be the driving goal of at least every other character in the story. I’ve read this word most often in medieval fiction, but it works well in any scenario of power shifting by force. A sub-definition of “usurp” is “to take the place of someone in a position of power illegally”, and writers of historical fiction may find use in the archaic meaning “to encroach or infringe upon someone’s rights”. If you write characters who seek to steal power from others, “usurp” is definitely the word to define their objectives! Good luck!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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