‘Impeachment’ has nothing to do with fruit

Etymologically speaking, an impeachment hinders or impedes an unlawful or suspicious statement or course of action.

The impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s Ukraine dealings is dominating the news, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. Let’s take a look at impeachment, then, which in its origins had nothing to do with fruit, but rather with a part of the human body. Any guesses as to which one?

Merriam-Webster defines the verb impeach as “to charge (a public official) before a competent tribunal with misconduct in office.” This definition reveals a common point of confusion – an official can be impeached without being found guilty and removed from office. Before the word narrowed its focus to the wrongdoings of officeholders, it could signify, generally, “to accuse of a crime.” 

Impeach can also mean “to challenge the credibility or validity of,” as in “The witness testified that she was familiar with and always obeyed traffic laws, but was impeached by 15 parking violations.” 

The noun impeachment almost always refers to a formal inquiry, but the adjective unimpeachable has ties to both senses of the verb, being defined as “reliable beyond a doubt” (“unimpeachable evidence”) or “not liable to accusation” (“an unimpeachable character”).

Impeach comes from the Latin word for “foot,” pes. Thus rather surprisingly, it shares the same root as pedicure, pedestrian, and pedal, which we can see if we trace its evolution. Pes, in its variant ped-, was used to form the Latin pedica, “a shackle, a fetter” – chains for the feet. Wearing fetters obstructed one’s movement, so pedica gave rise to the Late Latin impedicare (“to catch, entangle”) and eventually the French empêcher (“to prevent,” “hinder”).

Etymologically speaking, then, an impeachment hinders or impedes (another ped- word) an unlawful or suspicious statement or course of action. 

If you peach on your associates, you make what amounts to an informal accusation against them – you inform on them or turn them in. This word has had a long history in underworld slang, first appearing around the 15th century (“If I be taken, I’ll peach!”). It, too, is closely related to impeach, deriving from pes (“foot”) as well. 

Peach in the fruit sense is not related to any of these words, and comes from an entirely different Latin root: malum persicum, or “Persian apple.” While peaches are actually Chinese, they were brought to ancient Greece and Rome, and then the rest of Europe, via the Middle East, hence the “Persian” designation.

Sometimes etymologies are messy and confusing, or just plain unknowable. The derivations of impeachment and peach, though, are beautifully straightforward and clear. If only the current impeachment saga could be, too!

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