The word impeach begins—and can end up—in “shackles.”
The political nature of Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey, coupled with Comey’s memo that Trump asked him to “let go” of the investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, are prompting a lot of talk about the I-word—impeachment—over concerns that Trump may have obstructed justice. Time, along with FBI evidence and witnesses in congressional investigations, will tell whether impeachment is called for. In the meantime, let’s have a look at why it’s called impeach.
Despite their spellings, impeach has no relationship to peach, the fruit. That word ultimately comes from the Latin (malum) Persicum, or “Persian apple.”
The word impeach enters English in the 1380s as the Middle English empechen, which meant “to impede,” “hinder,” or “prevent.” It was borrowed from the Old French empechier, in turn from the Late Latin impedicāre, “to fetter,” “entangle,” or “catch.” The root of impedicāre is pedica, “shackles,” formed from pēs, “foot,” yielding words from pawn to pedestrian to impede. As the metaphor goes, to shackle one’s feet is to stop them from walking, hence impeach’s historical sense of “hinder.”
Was the metaphor further extended for impeach’s modern use, “to charge someone in public office of misconduct”? We could imagine that impeachment “hinders” the figure from carrying out their position or that an impeachment conviction “shackles” the person in prison. But it seems a different force shifted impeach: the Latin impetere, “to attack,” source of impetus and impetuous. Apparently, when the “accusing” impeach emerges in the 1400s, it was confused with medieval Latin forms of impetere, though it has no etymological connection to the word. Along with its meaning, the confusion also helped to alter impeach’s spelling. The specific political application of impeach we’re seeing discussed of Trump, emerges in the mid-1500s.
An earlier variant of impeach was appeach, which was already showing confusion with impetere in the 1300–1400s, when the word signified “to bring charges against” or “impute.” Appeach was clipped to peach, used especially as peach on, or “to inform on or turn on” an accomplice.
Meanwhile, to depeach, now obsolete, was used in the late 1400s for “to send away” or “get rid of.” The French root of depeach—also the origin of the English depeche (a dispatch)—is taken as dis- (away) plus *-pedicāre (to snare). Dispatch itself may ultimately come from the Latin pedica, though through the Spanish despachar or Italian dispacciare (hasten). These verbs literally mean, in a construction similar to depeach, “to remove [dis-] the shackles or obstacles [pedica],” thus “expedite.” The “kill” dispatch is first attested in the 1520s, not longer after its “send off quickly” sense, recorded in the 1510s.
Despite the concerns, most legal experts, historians, and politicians agree it’s far too early to bring any formal impeachment charges, but the steady rain of bombshell revelations against Trump certainly won’t make it easy for him to dispatch with the I-word anytime soon.