No need to tell you why this word has been so much in the news recently. It has become so inextricably linked with the US Constitution, particularly with Nixon and now the row over Clinton, that it has about it an aura of American high politics which prevents it being used very often in other circumstances, particularly in Britain.
But in any case we’ve not had much use for impeach since Parliament gave up using it to arraign ministers of state in 1806. Before then, impeachment was the name for a trial of an individual by the House of Lords at the request of the House of Commons (almost exactly the same process that was taken over into the US Constitution). It was commonly used as a way to fight out battles between Crown and Parliament. Impeachment fell into disuse after several high-profile trials that brought it into disrepute, especially the one of Warren Hastings that dragged on for seven years but ended in acquittal.
The word itself has had an equally chequered history. It goes back to the Latin word pedica, “fetter; snare”, a derivative of ped, “foot”, which gave rise to impedicare, a verb meaning “to tie the feet together”. Impeach is therefore a very close relative of impede and it came into English in the fourteenth century via French with exactly that meaning. It kept it for centuries — in 1690 William Leybourn could write in his Cursus Mathematicus: “A Ditch, of sufficient ... breadth, and depth, to impeach the Assaults of an Enemy”.
But almost from the beginnings of its history in English, it could also have the sense of bringing a charge or accusation against someone, usually but not always as a formal action at law. It seems that this additional meaning came about because writers got confused between impedicare and another Latin verb impetere, “to attack; accuse” (from which we get our word impetuous). Once established with that additional erroneous sense, it was a short step to the modern meaning of accusing someone of high crimes before a competent tribunal or court. Later the original sense fell out of use.
Another strand came about because it looked to those not versed in Latin as though it was something to do with peach and that word began to be used very early on as a variant form of impeach in the etymologically-incorrect sense of making an accusation. By about the sixteenth century, it had become a term for informing on someone. In the same year that William Leybourn was writing the text I’ve quoted above, Aphra Behn, one of the more colourful persons of the century — she spied in Holland for Charles II and may have been the first woman in English history to earn her living as an author — wrote in Widow Ranter: “Wilt thou betray and peach thy friend?”. Unusually, for the movement is more commonly the other way, this verb has since moved away from being standard English to colloquial usage and then to the slang meaning of turning someone in, such as an accomplice, usually in order to get oneself off the hook (what in British law used to be called turning King’s Evidence).
In recent decades, the rows over supposed Presidential misconduct and the subsequent calls for impeachment have led to confusion among members of the public and many commentators about the meaning of the word. Rather than implying setting in motion a legal process that may or may not conclude wrong-doing has taken place, the word is used assuming guilt and implying that impeachment is the punishment, not the trial, something nearer “dismissal from office” than its true meaning in law.
Impeach has come a long way from those fetters.