Latin roots of 8 familiar impeachment-related terms

That many legal words and phrases derive from Latin might not be surprising, but the oft-cited ‘quid pro quo’ has its origins in an altogether different profession. That said, caveat emptor.

Latin terms

The phrase at the heart of the current impeachment process, quid pro quo, is unaltered Latin, but several words less obviously Latin have been sharing the spotlight.

Their etymologies are interesting.

Castigate. More than one person involved in the hearings has been reported as “castigating” someone or other. The verb castigate comes from Latin castigare, “to chastise, correct, reprove.” The Latin verb derives from the Latin adjective castus, “pure.” The original idea is that the person doing the castigating is attempting to “purify” the person seen as acting improperly. Castigate is related to chastise. Both refer to an authoritative attempt to improve the behavior of someone.

Corruption. In the context of the hearings, corruption applies to dishonest dealings in government. The word derives from a Latin verb meaning “to destroy.” Corruption in a physical sense is the breakdown of something solid into another state, as in the decay of a corpse. In the figurative sense of corrupting a government, it refers to influence by a bribe or other wrong motive.

Dilatory. Several times impeachment panel members have been warned against the employment of “dilatory tactics.” In law, dilatory tactics are methods used to delay the progress of a proceeding to benefit the party that causes the delay. The Latin noun dilatorius means “one who delays; a delayer.”

Impeachment. The word impeachment itself comes by way of Old French from Late Latin impedicare “to fetter, catch, entangle,” from the Latin prefix in plus pedica, the word for a shackle that restrains the feet. At first, the word was used in a broad legal sense to mean “bring charges against.” The current, more specific meaning, “to accuse a public officer of misconduct,” was in place by the end of the sixteenth century.

Innuendo. This word came up in reference to efforts to damage the reputation of one of the participants “by fiction and innuendo.” Innuendo comes from the ablative gerund of innuere, “to nod to; to signify.” It suggests the modern expression, “a nod and a wink,” used of a situation in which someone expresses a thought indirectly or by making some sort of bodily signal like a nod, wink, or shrug.

Intimidation. Latin timidus, “fearful,” gives us our adjective timid, “subject to fear, easily frightened.” Our verb intimidate means, “to inspire with fear.” The term “witness intimidation” refers to an attempt to discourage someone from testifying by threats or violence.

Subpoena. In law, a subpoena is a writ issued from a court of justice or, in the case of the U.S. impeachment process, by a congressional committee. Some subpoena examples on the web begin, “You are commanded to,” or, “Pursuant to such and such.” Some writs, however, begin, “Under penalty of,” and go on to state the recipient and purpose of the writ. Subpoena combines Latin sub, “under,” with poena, “penalty; punishment.”

Quid pro quo. By now, surely everyone in the U.S. knows that this oft-repeated phrase means “this for that.” Not an ancient Latin coinage, the expression originated in the 1560s, when Latin was still the lingua franca of the medical profession. Nowadays, it is used in a general sense to refer to a conditional exchange, but it originated in a medical context. Unethical apothecaries (druggists) were known to substitute one drug for another in filling prescriptions. Doctors used the phrase in reference to the substitution of a prescribed drug with one of lesser quality.

As they say, the rest is history (a word derived, in part, from the Latin term for “investigation” or “inquiry”).

A version of this post first appeared on Daily Writing Tips.

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