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Arrogate vs Usurp vs Preempt vs Appropriate vs Confiscate

Arrogate, Usurp, Preempt, Appropriate and Confiscate all mean to seize or assume something by more or less high-handed methods.

Arrogate (commonly followed by to and a reflexive pronoun) implies an unwarranted and usually an insolent or presumptuous claim to something assumed, frequently to the exclusion of others.

  • by arrogating to himself too much, he was in danger of losing that degree of estimation to which he was entitled
  • he arrogated to himself the right of deciding dogmatically what was orthodox doctrine
  • the exploitation of the tourists was a monopoly which the most active of the children had arrogated by force and cunning to themselves

Usurp stresses unlawful or wrongful intrusion of oneself into the place held by another (as through law, custom, or natural right) and the seizure for oneself of the territory, power, authority, prerogatives, or rights pertaining to such place.

  • usurp a throne
  • the dictator usurped the powers not only of the king but of the parliament
  • literature, or culture, tended with Arnold to usurp the place of religion
    T. S. Eliot

Preempt implies beforehandedness in taking something desired by others and keeping it in one’s own possession. Historically it implies the right to purchase or acquire (as land or property) before others and often on more favorable terms: this implication is now sometimes found in discriminating figurative use.

  • prose has preempted a lion’s share of the territory once held, either in sovereignty or on equal terms, by poetry

In current use it more often suggests arrogation or usurpation than lawful methods such as purchase.

  • when the townspeople arrived they found that the visitors had preempted all the parking places
  • the best of the slogans suggested had already been preempted by a rival manufacturer
  • in the game of bridge, to preempt is to make a bid aimed at shutting out shifts by the partner or bids by the opponents

Appropriate more often suggests conversion to one’s own use than a setting apart for a particular or peculiar use. However, the latter implication is often retained.

  • congress appropriated three billion dollars for flood control

It usually suggests an acquiring for oneself or an annexing sometimes by lawful but often by unscrupulous or even by unlawful means.

  • growing plants appropriate whatever elements they need from the soil and the air
  • a plagiarist appropriates the ideas of others
  • if we could by any means appropriate to our use some of the extraordinary digestive power that a boa constrictor has

Confiscate implies seizure (as of others’ property or goods) through an exercise of authority; it does not, like appropriate, suggest conversion to the use of the one exercising authority; thus, one might note that the sheriff appropriated the liquor confiscated when the still was raided, if he took for his own use without authority what had been taken from another in a proper exercise of authority.

  • the teacher confiscated all packages of chewing gum
  • if miners, or any other sort of workers, find that the local authorities will confiscate the incomes of the ratepayers to feed them when they are idle, their incentive to pay their way by their labor will be . . . perceptibly slackened