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TWTS: An ouster for the ouster

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An “ouster” can be an act of ousting, or it can be the one who does the ousting. While the former tends to be the more commonly used meaning, that doesn’t preclude confusion over the latter.

Our listener Kari Koshiol raises a good point about this headline from a November edition of The New York Times: “What we know about Sam Altman’s ouster from OpenAI.”

“When I read a headline such as this it makes me think that I'm going to learn about the person who removed Mr. Altman, rather than the removal,” said Koshiol.

The verb “oust” was borrowed into English from French. By the 1500s, the noun “ouster” appears as a legal term, as in “dispossession” or “deprivation of an inheritance.”

The American Heritage Dictionary still includes what it notes as a “law” definition of “ouster:" The wrongful exclusion of one from real property to which one is entitled to by law.”

By the 1700s, there’s evidence that “ouster” had taken on the meaning of “dismissal” or “expulsion from a position.” This meaning is still prevalent, as in the earlier referenced New York Times article about Sam Altman’s ouster.

In the 1800s, an “ouster” could refer to someone who ousts, and that meaning still pops up occasionally. In terms of actual usage though, an “ouster” refers to the ousting itself, not the one who does the ousting.

Today “ouster” is still used to refer to formal dismissals, such as the ouster of a city council member. However, it can also be used in a more general sense to refer to refer to removal from a situation or place. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that this is typically an American usage.

Another usage question about “ouster” is whether it can be used as a verb. To hear more about that, listen to the audio above.


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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.