In a Word: Our Impeachment Error

If not for an early misinterpretation by legal scholars, we might not have impeachment at all.


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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

With the impeachment hearings practically monopolizing news coverage, many have been asking themselves, “How did we get here?” While I won’t weigh in on the politics, I can shed some etymological light on how we got to impeachment.

Impeach stems from the Latin root impedicare “to fetter, entangle.” That ped in the middle indicates “foot,” and it also appears in the word Latin verb impedire, literally “to tie the feet together” but also the source of the related word impede. And when impeach (also sometimes spelled empeach) entered the English language via Old French in the late 14th century, that’s all it meant: to impede.

So in The Merchant of Venice (III.3), when Antonio says

The duke cannot deny the course of law:
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of his state…

he isn’t speaking of a legal procedure but of how the duke’s actions might get in the way of justice.

We can find examples of impeach used as a synonym for impede into the late 1600s, but it also found its way into courts pretty quickly. At the end of the 14th century — not long after it entered the language — impeach in a legal sense meant to bring charges against someone — anyone. By 1560, its meaning had narrowed — first to an accusation of treason, then specifically to a charge brought against a public official.

It’s likely the legal meaning came about because of a misinterpretation. Latin was long considered the language of the well-educated, and the learned judges and counselors of centuries prided themselves on their knowledge of and skills with that dead language — but they didn’t always get it right. It’s believed that impeach found its way into the court out of the mistaken belief that it stemmed from Latin impetere (“attack or accuse,” the root of impetuous) and not impedicare.

If not for this misunderstanding, we might all be watching impetement hearings instead.

As many have pointed out, the impeachment is the bringing of charges against a public official, not the act of removing them from office, though that may be the end goal. Both Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached. Both were found not guilty (by a single vote in Johnson’s case) and served out their terms as president.

At the time of writing, Donald Trump has not been impeached because no formal accusation of a crime has been presented — the hearings are to determine if impeachment is warranted, and if so, for what reasons. Our “Quick Guide to Impeachment” details the impeachment process in Congress.

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