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shameless pleading

Deposition

I prefer not to, ever again.

Dear Word Detective: While wandering about the net, reading up on William Gladstone and the Franco-Prussian War, I came across the word “deposition” a few times, used in the “loss of political control” sense: Napoleon III was depositioned when he was captured at Sedan, some random Spanish Queen abdicated, and so on. I’d never seen the word used that way before. To me, a “deposition” is a statement made to be used in court, sort of getting mixed in without actually being present,  but come to think of it, the “removed from” sense of “de” actually seems a bit more sensible (and accessible) than the “deposit a statement” sense. So how did this one word come to mean both leaving a situation and entering it? — Paul Stock, Montreal, Canuckistan.

Ah yes, depositions. When I was but a wee tot, barely out of knee-britches, I was apprenticed, at the urging of Lord Hunger, as a lowly scrivener at a large law firm in the City of New York. There I toiled for long hours over stacks of debentures, indentures, allegations, refutations, supplications, frivolous aggravations and the occasional Ponzi scheme. Prominent in this plethora of paper were lengthy depositions, taken from parties to the tussles of our clients, by which the attorneys would determine said persons’ usefulness to our cause. If their account supported our side, they were enlisted to tell it to the judge. If not, they were thanked politely, given an attractive pen as a parting gift, and dropped into the sea off Costa Rica.

I joke, of course, but I still flinch when I see the word “deposition.” The basic sense of “deposition” is that of “putting down,” and the difference between what you and I think of when we hear “deposition” and how the historians you encounter used the word is that between the literal and the figurative, complicated by several centuries of use.

When “deposition” first appeared in English in the 14th century, the general sense was “the action of putting down,” whether by laying down a literal cargo or divesting oneself of more figurative burdens (“The day of Christian mens death is the deposition of paine,” 1577). “Deposition” is a noun of action formed on the verb “to depose,” meaning generally “to put down,” which came from the Latin “de,” meaning “down or away” in this case, plus “pausere,” meaning “to stop, pause” (source of our modern “pause” and “pose”). But because the past participle form of “pausere” was so similar to that of the Latin verb “ponere,” meaning “to place”  (source of “position”), the senses of both Latin words have mingled in the modern meaning of “depose.”

One of the early specialized uses of “deposition,” around 1399, was to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “The action of deposing or putting down from a position of dignity or authority; degradation, dethronement” (“Kings are said to find the step a short one from deposition to the scaffold,” 1858). This use is not common today, probably because “deposition” used in the legal sense is so commonly seen in this litigious age, but the simple verb “to depose” is a staple of news accounts of “regime changes” around the world (“Guatemala to Restore Legacy of a President the US Helped Depose,” New York Times, 5/23/11).

The legal sense of “deposition” is almost as old as the “down with the King” sense, first appearing around 1513 with the meaning “The giving of testimony upon oath in a court of law, or the testimony so given; specifically a statement in answer to interrogatories, constituting evidence, taken down in writing to be read in court as a substitute for the production of the witness” (OED). (In practice, as I said, depositions are also used to judge the suitability of a witness, who may then be called to testify in court.) “Deposition” in this sense evokes a figurative use of “depose” or “put down” to mean “put down in writing or in a record,” in this case under the scrutiny of a legal authority. “Depose” was used briefly in the 17th century to mean simply “to write down,” but that use has long been obsolete, so your grocery list is not, no matter how lengthy or important it may be, a “deposition.”

Interestingly, the verb “depose” today is used to mean both “to give a deposition under oath” and “to examine a witness under oath in preparation for a trial” (“A technology firm suing Apple Inc. for patent infringement cannot depose co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs because it failed to show it had exhausted less burdensome means to obtain the information…” Westlaw, 5/23/11). Of course “depose” also means “to throw out of power,” so context is everything in its use. I suspect that it wouldn’t be hard to find a few corporate CEOs who had been forcibly “deposed” because their underlings spilled the beans when they were “deposed.”

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