On Tuesday, on the eve of the House’s impeachment vote, President Trump didn’t just bash the process. The president took a swipe at the word itself, too.
It’s a claim that Trump has made before, such as at a Dec. 10 campaign rally or at the Values Voter Summit in Washington in October. “Impeachment! I never thought I’d see or hear that word with regard to me, impeachment!” he said in the October speech. “I said the other day, ‘It’s an ugly word.’ To me, it’s an ugly word — a very ugly word. It means so much. It means horrible, horrible crimes and things.”
Whether impeachment is “ugly” may be outside the scope of linguists and etymologists to decide, but they agree that Trump is right about one thing: Historically speaking, impeachment has meant a lot of things. In fact, in its centuries-long history in English usage, impeachment didn’t always refer to an accusation of a crime.
So what, exactly, is impeachment — the word — made of?
First off: not peaches.
If you were to look at the word impeachment through a microscope, you would probably find feet — the root of “impeach” at its most granular level.
“Impeachment” has been around in the English language since the 14th century, but it didn’t start out having anything to do with accusing someone of high crimes and misdemeanors.
The word came into English as “empechen” by way of the Old French word “empechier,” meaning to prevent or to hinder, according to the British etymologist Michael Quinion. “Empechier,” in turn, is rooted in the Latin word “impedicare,” which means to tie the feet together, or to “fetter.” From there you get “pedica,” which in Latin means shackle, and from there all you’re left with is a foot: “ped.”
“Impeach is therefore a very close relative of impede,” Quinion wrote on the etymology website he founded, World Wide Words, during Clinton’s impeachment scandal.
It would continue to mean “to hinder” for centuries before that definition fell out of favor — Quinion cites this 1690 example written by English mathematician William Leybourn: “A Ditch, of sufficient … breadth, and depth, to impeach the Assaults of an Enemy.”
But then how did we get to high crimes and misdemeanors?
“Was the metaphor further extended for impeach’s modern use, ‘to charge someone in public office of misconduct?’ ” John Kelly, an etymologist and senior research editor at Dictionary.com, wrote in a 2017 post on his etymology website, Mashed Radish. “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.”
As it turns out, English writers of the era just started getting their medieval Latin root words confused.
Quinion noted that people began mixing up the Latin words “impedicare” with “impetere,” which means to attack or to accuse — which ushered in the modern-day meaning of the word “impeach,” as in to accuse of a crime. That same confusion, Kelly wrote, also helped bring us to the modern-day spelling of the word “impeach.”
The first impeachment on record was in 1376 in England’s Good Parliament against one Lord Latimer, who was thrown out of office for selling a castle to the enemy and taking bribes for the release of captured ships, among other things. Impeachment blew up in the 1640s, when a quarter of all impeachments in England’s history took place — fewer than 70, according to the United Kingdom’s House of Commons Library — before becoming essentially obsolete shortly after the turn of the 19th century.
The United States took up the linguistic baton right around that time.
“So it goes from ‘to hinder’ to ‘challenging one’s credibility’ — to impeach their morals, to censure, to discredit, to throw shade,” Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, told The Washington Post. “And from that, this legal sense emerges: to accuse of a specific crime.”
Merriam-Webster, which named “impeach” as a finalist for 2019 word of the year, cites this example of how the word was used in 1643: “He tels us of Maistet Pims death, as remarkable newes, and how he was impeached of Treason, and that he died of the Herodian visitation, and that hee was a most loathsome and foule Carcasse.”
That may sound ugly then — but Nunberg said he would push back on Trump’s insult against the word “impeachment.”
“There’s nothing ugly about ‘impeach,’ ” he said. “In fact, it’s a rather delicate way to say ‘to castigate’ or ‘to slur.’ ... If we’re going to start naming ugly words, ‘impeachment’ would not be on the top of my list.”