At the end of March, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was found by the country’s Constitutional Court to have abused the Constitution by not reimbursing the state for improvements to his personal home – after the Public Protector had ordered him to pay it back. The parliamentary opposition was preparing a motion for his impeachment.
“Impeachment”? We don’t do impeachment in Australia, since we don’t have a president, and so don’t need a mechanism to remove him or her in case of misdeed. We do have dismissal, but that’s somewhat different.
Two US presidents were impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon was about to be impeached, but resigned before the process could begin: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Thus Article II of Section 4 of the United States Constitution.
I had always assumed that the word “impeach” came from the French péché meaning “sin”. That is plausible. But it turns out to be another of those pesky folk etymologies – an analysis that looks logical but is not correct.
It turns out that “impeach” is related to the modern French verb “empêcher”, which means “to hinder, inhibit”. Which in turn comes from Latin “impedicare”, meaning “to catch, entangle”, and in the middle of that word is the root “ped” meaning “foot”. In Latin a “pedica” is a “fetter”, something with which to constrain a foot or leg.
Impeachment is like throwing someone in chains.
Now let us return to French péché “sin”. Original sin, in Christian terms, is eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. Adam did it, and humankind has been feeling the effects of it ever since.
Original sin in French is “péché originEl”. But there is another word for “original” in French, “originAl” (in English we blur both meanings in a single word).
The French word “original” means “imaginative”. So you have to be careful whether you accuse someone of a “péché originel” (original sin in the Garden of Eden sense), or a “péché original” (a sin showing pizzazz, inventiveness, ingenuity, creativity and ingeniousness).
How either of those relates to impeachment isn’t clear to me. How high does a crime or misdeameanor (sic) have to be, in the American sense, to warrant the application of fetters? Or, for that matter, how highly “original”, as the French might put it?