Q: I’ve read and heard the word “oustered,” but I can’t find it in dictionaries. Is this really a word? Enquiring minds want to know! (Ten bonus points if you know the reference off the top of your head.)
A: The word “oustered” isn’t in the six standard dictionaries we usually check. Nor is it in the Oxford English Dictionary.
All seven reference books have entries for the verb “oust” (whose past tense and past participle is “ousted”) and for the noun “ouster.” But nowhere did we find an entry for a verb “ouster,” let alone a past tense and past participle “oustered.”
Nevertheless, we’ve found examples for “ouster” used as a verb since the late 1960s and “oustered” used since the early 1970s.
A 1968 report by New York State investigators refers to getting councilmen “to ouster” an official in Troy, NY.
And a 1972 article in the journal Intellect says a university chairman “is elected, appointed, or roundly oustered, largely at the behest of his colleagues.”
Although the verbing of the noun “ouster” has increased somewhat in recent years (a Google search for “oustered” gets about 1,700 hits), the usage is still rare, which explains why you can’t find it in dictionaries.
Is “oustered” really a word? Well, it’s a word—a unit of written or spoken language—for the people who use it. But lexicographers don’t think it’s word-y enough to include in their dictionaries.
As for the etymology here, the verb “oust,” the oldest of these words, showed up in the early 1400s as a legal term meaning to eject or dispossess.
English borrowed the word from Anglo-Norman, but it’s ultimately derived from obstare, Latin for to stand in the way of.
The earliest example in the OED is a 1420 entry from the records of the Court of Chancery, an equity court in England and Wales:
“We wol and charge you that … ye see and ordeyne that oure saide tenant … be not wrongfully ousted by maintenance of lordship ner other wyse.”
In the late 1700s, the verb took on its usual contemporary sense of “to expel or drive out from a place or position,” according to OED citations.
The first example in the dictionary for this sense is from an Oct. 8, 1787, letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Jay: “”An intrigue is already begun for ousting him from his place.”
When the noun “ouster” showed up in the early 1500s, according to the OED, it referred to “ejection from a freehold or other possession; deprivation of an inheritance.” (A freehold is a lifetime possession of an estate.)
The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1531 book by Christopher St. Germain, featuring a dialogue between a clergyman and a barrister about conscience and common law: “To saue them selfe fro confessynge of an oustre.”
In the late 1700s, according to Oxford citations, the noun came to mean “dismissal or expulsion from a position.”
The first citation given is from The Biographical History of Sir William Blackstone (1782), compiled by “a gentleman of Lincoln’s-Inn,” a k a “D. Douglas”:
“Whenever the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal is removed from his high office, be the same by resignation or ouster; that he should be immediately … created a peer of the realm.”
Now, according to Oxford, the noun is chiefly used to mean removal from a place or situation.
Here’s an example of this extended use from the Dec. 20, 1973, issue of the Listener, a defunct BBC magazine:
“It is the hope … that enough damning evidence would be found to force the ouster of the President overnight—to make him resign.”
As for your pop quiz, hand over those 10 bonus points. We’re well aware that “Enquiring minds want to know” was a catchphrase used by the National Enquirer in TV ads in the 1980s.
The expression itself, as we found after making a few digital inquiries, is a lot older, and uses the more common spelling of the first word.
The earliest example we’ve found in online searches is from an Aug. 16, 1856, letter by Frances Baroness Bunsen:
“I rejoice in the accounts of your meeting people, and being stimulated the more to write what inquiring minds want to know.”
Note: Although “enquiring” shows up more in the UK than the US, three of the four British dictionaries we’ve checked list “inquiring” as the primary spelling for UK English.