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Je dois admettre que les soi-disant héros n'ont pas totalement usurpé leur réputation...

I assume that « ils ont usurpé leur réputation » has a figurative meaning of "they do not merit their reputation", "their reputation is unjustified", or "their reputation is not all it's cracked up to be".

And now, with the phrase « pas totalement {not completely} » thrown into the mix, its precise meaning eludes me. This is just guesswork, but does the entire sentence mean:

I’ve got to admit that the so-called heroes have lived up to their reputation, after all... even if just a little bit.

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Usurper” has the same meaning as the English “usurp”, but its usage is broader. In French, the verb can be applied not only to a specific title (“usurper le trône” = “usurp the throne”) but to many illegitimate claims to a positive quality, such as reputation. “X usurpe sa réputation” means that X's reputation is undeserved. A straightforward translation of “ils n'ont pas totalement usurpé leur réputation” is “their reputation is not wholly undeserved”.

  • I wonder what nouns (other than "réputation") can be coupled with this figurative usage of "usurper"? Merci. – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Oct 14 '16 at 20:17
  • @LUNA You can find some examples in the TLF. Admittedly it isn't that helpful: of the two examples, one is precisely réputation and the other one (Feuillet: “Cécile … semblait avoir usurpé l'empire dans ce ménage”) is l'empire which I'm not sure I understand in context (I think it means the wife is the source of authority in her marriage, as opposed to the husband which was the societal norm when that text was written). – Gilles Oct 14 '16 at 20:24
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    @LUNA Littré gives examples with droits, liberté, pouvoir, renommée, honneur, maîtrise, privilèges, nom (“usurpent le nom d'historiens” = undeservedly claim to be historians). Many of the sentences are in clearly old-fashioned French, but the usage of usurper hasn't changed. – Gilles Oct 14 '16 at 20:28
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    @Faʁdɔʃɔtɔmatabaʁwɛt « Leur réputation n'est pas complètement sans mérite » est synonyme (je ne vois pas de différence de sens). – Gilles Oct 14 '16 at 20:52
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    @LUNA I don't think “s'attribuer” works with reputation, but it can work with other nouns (“il s'attribue des qualités de dirigeant”), to mean that somebody makes a claim to something (“s'attribuer une réputation” would mean to claim a reputation, which is meaningful but odd — it doesn't mean to claim having a quality that warrants a good reputation). – Gilles Oct 14 '16 at 20:56
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The verb 'usurper' means to appropriate ourselves a right without any valid reason. In this case, this is a double negation where it actually means that the heroes have not wrongfully claimed their reputation. In other words, the sentence means that the heroes did not claim their reputation purely by themselves. "Je dois admettre que les soi-disant héros ne se sont pas totalement appropriés leur reputation."

So you are right by saying that "I've got to admit that the so-called heroes have lived up to their reputation, after all ... even if just a little bit."

The verb "usurper" is not commonly used though. I would use "approprier" instead.

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    Good explanation, but I disagree with “se sont appropriés leur réputation”. This is not standard French. Prior to your answer there were no Google hits for "appropriés leur reputation" or "approprié sa reputation". "Usurper sa réputation" is perfectly standard French. – Gilles Oct 14 '16 at 20:07

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