Appropriate vs. expropriate

To appropriate is (1) to take possession of for one’s own use, and (2) to set something apart for a specific use. To appropriate something is not necessarily to deprive another of possession; for example, an artist might appropriate another’s style, or one might appropriate a catchy archaic phrase from the 18th century. But appropriation does sometimes involve depriving of possession, such as when a government appropriates a private company. In its second sense, appropriate usually applies to government funds or other official resources given out for specified purposes. This use of the word is primarily American, but it’s not unheard of elsewhere.

To expropriate is to deprive of possession, especially using eminent domain or judicial action. So expropriate is often interchangeable with appropriate where the latter involves depriving of possession, and both words are indeed commonly used in reference to government appropriation of private property and companies.


The Columbia City Council yesterday approved a measure to appropriate funds that could be used to provide bonuses to city employees. [Columbia Daily Tribune]

Chàvez has suggested expropriating “bourgeois” golf courses to build housing projects on them instead. [Financial Times]

Rescinding the billions appropriated to Obamacare would help reach the GOP’s well-publicized pledge to cut spending by $100 billion. [Heritage Foundation]

The bill effectively gives the government the right to expropriate land at a price. [Reuters]

Known for his unique style of appropriating popular-culture imagery and mass-produced objects to create his own artwork, Jeff Koons made headlines a few years ago. [Intellectual Property Brief]

Wall Street has wiped $5 billion off Apache’s market value since the riots began amid fears that a new government could expropriate their land concessions. [Fortune]

3 thoughts on “Appropriate vs. expropriate”

  1. There is also an association of appropriate with a legitimate taking (in the second sense of appropriate, which I would think is less rare than the first definition, unless you read a lot of economics and finance publications) and expropriate with an illegitimate taking. For example trading vs stealing to get something you want. (South African English speaker btw)

  2. I agree with Secretariat that the second sense of “to appropriate”, which you call rare, is far commoner outside the U.S.A. It’s the only one given when I type “appropriate” into Google UK.

    I had heard of “appropriations committees”, but I had assumed that they were so named because their purpose was to match a government’s expenditure with its appropriations from taxes.

    Typing “appropriations committee” into Google UK gives myriad links to USA
    sites but practically none from outside. So I wonder whether the main American
    usage might be a back-formation from “appropriations committee”, reflecting the
    fact that they actually spend most of their time on the expenditure side of the
    equation? (But I am speaking from deep ignorance of their working and history,
    so I suggest this with very little confidence. Indeed, I’ve just consulted a
    1970’s edition of Chamber’s and it does give “set aside for a purpose” as a
    fourth meaning of the verb, just after “filch”.)

    • Thank you for calling our attention to this problematic post. We gave the two words a second look and found that what we had here was indeed not very accurate. We have now done a quick edit so that the post at least stands up to scrutiny, and we’ll expand further next time we come around to it in our normal editing process.


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