‘I’ is for… impeachment: the I-word
A curious circumlocution has been popping up in discussions of American politics lately: the I-word, meaning ‘impeachment’. A recent column in Politico assured readers that “the ‘I’ word that is passing like a brisk wind in private conversations all over D.C. will not be mentioned herein,” and the epidemic of coy references to the I-word by news anchors inspired a comedic response by Trevor Noah on the Daily Show. But why is the standard English word impeachment being treated like an unspeakable obscenity or offensive slur?
The use of the model “the [X]-word” to refer to a word regarded as obscene or inflammatory is attested from as early as 1956, when the British linguist William Edward Collinson wrote in an academic journal that “even today the British printer would draw the line at the f-word used in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” The use of F-word as a substitution for modern English’s favorite profanity is the oldest and best-known of the [X]-words, but it established a pattern that can be used with any letter of the alphabet. Two other combinations, the sexually obscene C-word (attested from 1979) and the racially offensive N-word (attested from 1985), have also become well established enough to warrant their own entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The possibilities for the remaining 23 letters of the alphabet are addressed in the OED by a catch-all sense of word, which is defined as follows:
Appended to a (freq. capitalized) letter of the alphabet, to denote euphemistically a word beginning with that letter which is coarse slang or otherwise likely to give offence; also used to denote a word which is not itself offensive but is regarded (freq. humorously) as unmentionable or taboo in a particular context.
OED, word noun sense 12g
The substitution of I-word for impeachment embodies the second clause of the definition. Amid the maelstrom of scandals and investigations relating to the Trump administration, references to Nixon and Watergate have become common, but earnest discussion of the possibility of impeachment is still regarded by many politicians and journalists as a bridge too far, putting the speaker in danger of being considered reckless, disloyal, or overly partisan. It’s not true in most cases that people are literally refusing to utter the word impeachment; use of the I-word instead of the actual word is a rhetorical device that emphasizes the momentous impact on the government and the nation of a decision to impeach, which is regarded as extending even to broaching the topic of impeachment.
The association of the I-word with impeachment goes back to at least 1987, when it was used with reference to Democrats’ reluctance to call for Reagan’s impeachment during the Iran-Contra scandal:
Probably the most compelling argument against the Democrats even uttering the “I” word (it would be political masochism for a Republican to do so) is that they would have nothing to gain by it. They are in a majority in both chambers of Congress, and they now deal with a president whose once-formidable clout has steadily been reduced to the point where he is not even considered a player in many of the day-to-day decisions reached in government.
Boston Globe, 22 Nov. 1987
Since then, the specter of “the I-word” has been raised with reference to every single president of the United States, even though only one, Bill Clinton, has actually been impeached.
Does I-word belong in the dictionary?
In spite of its long history, the case for I-word joining the pantheon of [X]-word combinations that are treated as full entries in the dictionary is far from clear. At the moment, the impeachment meaning of I-word is the most prominent, but there are many other I-words out there, too. In the past few years, I-word has been used to refer to more than a dozen different terms, including immigration, incest, inflation, innovation, identity, ironic, icon, and isolationism. In many cases, the avoidance of the word in question is humorously rhetorical, but not always; the Drop the I-Word campaign is a serious effort to end the use of illegal to refer to immigrants in the media. The inherent uncertainty of the meaning of I-word was playfully exploited by Democratic Congressman Joseph Crowley, who quipped “I’m not afraid of the i-word. It’s independent. Independent commission, independent investigator” (New York Times, 19 May 2017).
Meanwhile, the facetiously taboo status of impeachment has inspired at least one further circumlocution. When the I-word doesn’t sufficiently convey the explosive nature of impeachment, some people have taken inspiration from F-bomb, upgrading the I-word to the I-bomb.