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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?

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