Definition and Origin of the Term “Blackmail”


Lately I’m getting interested in the origin of words in the English language. It’s part of my language training program which gets more and more fascinating as I dig in. This post will be about the word “blackmail”.

For those of you who are studying English as a second language, let me say that blackmail has nothing to do with a Post Office or mailing letters inside black envelopes. The literal meaning of the word is misleading.

Wikipedia Encyclopedia defines blackmail as, “the crime of threatening to reveal substantially true information about a person to the public, a family member, or associates unless a demand made upon the victim is met.”

“This information is usually of an embarrassing or socially damaging nature. As the information is substantially true, the act of revealing the information may not be criminal in its own right nor amount to a civil law defamation; the crime is making demands to withhold it.”

“Blackmail is similar to extortion—the difference being that extortion involves an underlying, independent criminal act, while blackmail does not.”

Where does blackmail come from? The term is derived from the word for tribute or rent paid by English and Scottish border dwellers to Border Reivers (country border raiders) in return for immunity from raids.

This tribute was paid in grain, meat, the lowest coinage (copper) or labor (reditus nigri, or “blackmail”); the opposite is blanche firmes or reditus albi, or “white rent” (denoting payment by silver). In time the word took on the meaning of any payment extorted by threat of exposure of an incriminating secret.

Another similar origin that I found while researching for this post, is that blackmail has its genesis in medieval Scotland where chieftains and warlords collected rent or tribute which was called “mail” from tenants and farmers in return for protection and general safety. But they thought this was not enough and imposed an extra land rent on the tenants.

If payments were not made, the farmers would receive a terrible retribution from the landlords in the form of plunder and pillage. The tenants referred to this illegal payment which they were forced to pay as black mail as the legal one was known as white mail.

And now you know that blackmail has nothing to do with a Post Office or black envelopes. Good Day!

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