May 6, 2015

Case File #015.05.06: IMPEDE

When it comes to the origins of the word impede, meaning “to slow, obstruct, or prevent the progress of (something),” etymologists are not all of one mind. Some say that the verb is a direct descendant of the Latin impedire, which literally means “to shackle the feet”—it's a combination of the prefix im-, meaning “on,” and the locative noun form pedis, meaning “foot”—but was used by Latin speakers to mean “to hinder, obstruct, or prevent.” Others, however, say impede is a back-formation from the noun impediment, meaning “a hindrance or obstruction,” and they lend credence to their claim by pointing out that the noun entered the English lexicon no later than 1400, more than two centuries before the verb came into use. (By the way, impediment was derived from the Latin noun impedimentum, which also means “a hindrance or obstruction.”) But one thing the two camps do generally agree on is this: credit for the coining of impede belongs to our old friend and prolific neologist William Shakespeare, who was apparently the first to put the verb down on paper when he used it in the first act of his play Macbeth circa 1606.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

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