KODIAK — Over the past year or so, I’ve fielded requests from readers to take a look at a certain word, but I’ve been holding off until a discussion of this word entered the public sphere in earnest.
And it seems its time has come.
The word is impeach.
The Mueller Report laid out evidence this past week of the president and his surrogates taking steps to impede law enforcement and congressional investigations into Russia’s election interference. Now, many people on both sides of the aisle are calling for impeachment proceedings against the president on obstruction of justice charges. In fact, the report’s final paragraphs suggest that it is now Congress’s turn to follow up on Mueller’s findings.
Impeach, originally spelled as empeach, appeared in the English language at the end of the 14th century. It came from the Old French empeechier, meaning to hinder or stop, and in some cases to capture or ensnare.
To the ancient Romans, the Latin root impedicare meant to catch or entangle.
The prefix im- in this case is related to the Proto-Indo-European root en, which means in. And the base word is the Latin pedica, meaning a shackle.
As you can probably hear, pedica sounds a lot like pedicure. Now, I’ve never heard of a pedicurist shackling her clients, but I’m super ticklish down there, so it might take a chain or two to strap me down if I ever decided to get a pedicure.
Which I won’t.
But at the root of pedica is the PIE root ped, meaning foot.
The idea was that if someone was trying to run away, you would shackle their feet. That was called impeaching. To impeach meant to keep or stop someone; justice would come later.
In the 1560s, the meaning shifted slightly to define an accusation of misconduct against a public official. Which is a weird shift to make. Some word historians think that English speakers, as they were learning to standardize their written language in the wake of the printing press at the end of the 15th century, got a little confused with a similar Latin word: impetere, which means to attack or accuse.
But both meanings work in a presidential impeachment situation like one we may soon be facing. If a president is impeached by the US House, that is, they indict him on charges, then the president is essentially trapped: he must then face conviction and possible removal by the US Senate.
And that’s an important distinction to remember over these next several months: only the House has the power to impeach a president; only the Senate has the power to convict a president.
Another significant word associated with this discussion is charges. Even down here in Kodiak, where just learned that several members of the US Coast Guard based in Kodiak are facing multiple charges on illicit drug sales.
When the word charge joined English around 1200, it means a load or a weight. It comes directly from the Old French chargier, itself rooted in the Late Latin carricare, meaning specifically to load a wagon or cart. In fact, the Latin word carrus means wagon, and is where we get our word car from.
For centuries, the word almost exclusively referred to some sort of responsibility or burden that you might have. By the middle of the 15th century, it also came to mean a financial burden, as in cost or a price that a merchant demanded for goods and services.
This is why Wilma and Betty were able to popularize the phrase “Charge it!” whenever they would go on a shopping spree in Bedrock City. (That’s a deep cut for the baby boomers.) No doubt, the burden of charging to a credit card can turn into quite a weight.
But by the end of the 15th century, the word was used in legal situations as a synonym for accusation and injunction. In that sense, it was a legal burden that the accused needed to bear. In the 1680s, a charge was an address given by a judge to a jury telling them what they needed to do once they deliberated.
After that, it didn’t take too long for the military to adopt the word for an attack on an enemy, which probably influenced the term being used to describe an electrical current in 1767.
Certainly, we can feel the electricity in the air about the Mueller Report. Let’s just hope we can bear its weight and what’s to come without falling apart.