impeach, impeachment

The verb to impeach has a straightforward and unsurprising etymology, but the noun impeachment has an unusual twist.

The English verb to impeach is a late fourteenth century borrowing from the Old French empechier. The French verb comes from the Latin impedicare, meaning to entangle or hinder. And the original meaning in English was the same. From the writings of John Wyclif, c. 1380:

He schal dwelle þere alle his lif, and no man enpeche hym.

Note that the Latin root is ped-, meaning foot, which is etymologically related to the English word fetter. But fetter comes down to us today via a different path, from the Old English feter. The difference between ped- and fet- is explained by Grimm’s law: the Indo-European /p/ changes to /f/ and the /d/ to /t/ in the Germanic languages, while they remain the same in Latin and the Romance languages. The root ped-, of course, means foot, and to fetter is to tie one’s feet.

But the Old French word has a second meaning, to accuse someone of a crime. And from the beginning, English also had this second, legal meaning. John Wyclif again:

Þat wickid men [...] þere schullen dwelle in seyntewarie, and no man empeche hem bi processe of lawe.
(That wicked men [...] should dwell there in sanctuary, and no man impeach them by process of law.)

Another sense of impeach that is often used in legal circles is to challenge, discredit, or disparage, as in to impeach a witness. This sense dates to at least 1600 when it appears in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II.4:

You doe impeach your modestie too much, To leaue the citie, and commit your selfe, Into the hands of one that loues you not

But the sense that it is most famous for, at least in American political circles, is to bring formal charges against a government official for, in the words of the U.S. constitution, “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” This sense arises out of English law and appears by 1569 in Richard Grafton’s Chronicle at Large and Meere History of the Affayres of Englande and Kinges of the Same:

Whether the Lordes and commons might without the kings will empeche the same officers and iustices vpon their offenses in the parliament or not.

Here is where it gets unusual. The noun impeachment follows a similar development of its senses, but it has a twist in its etymology. The Old French empeschment was borrowed back into Latin during the medieval era, where it appears as impechementum. This is an instance of Latin borrowing a word from a later language. Most French words stem from Latin, but you don’t often see it work in the other direction. Of course, Latin didn’t die with the ancient Romans. It continued on as a living language well into the early modern period, and like all living languages borrowed words from others.

In the United States, the House of Representatives has the sole power of impeachment of federal officials, that is the bringing of charges against an official, and the Senate is the tribunal that adjudicates the charges and, if found guilty, removes the official from office. Three presidents (Andrew Johnson, 1868; Bill Clinton, 1998; and Donald Trump, 2019) have been impeached and one (Richard Nixon, 1974) resigned before the House could impeach him. Fifteen federal judges have also been impeached, eight of whom were convicted by the Senate and removed from office with one resigning before the Senate could convict, the most recent conviction being in 2010.

One final note, many people use impeach to mean remove an official from office. Technically, impeachment is just the charges; removal requires a trial before the appropriate tribunal. This sense of impeach meaning remove from office isn’t in any of the standard dictionaries and is incorrect from a legal perspective, but linguistically it is a correct usage because so many people use it in this manner.


Sources

American Heritage Dictionary, fifth edition, s. v. impeach.

Anglo-Norman Dictionary, 2010, s. v. empescher.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. impeach, v., impeachment, n., fetter, n.

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