Sunday, October 13, 2013


I know that often the words I come up with here are taken from my own life, so let me assure you from the start that I am not blackmailing anyone, nor am I being blackmailed. Not that I'd be revealing that here if I was. No, I heard President Obama use the term in a speech he made on our current budgetary crisis woes. It's been a few weeks since the speech now, but at the time I think  I noticed one of those little pauses or hesitancies characteristic of his speaking style, and I wondered, is it because he hesitates to use such an inflammatory term, or is it that, as a black man, he hesitates to use a word in  which, as is so often the case, black is meant as a pejorative? And then, because I am unlikely to know the answer to these questions, I went on to wonder, what is blackmail precisely? What's the original meaning? Was it mail like our mail, or was it mail like armor? I can't help but envision some black knight, popping around with some very bad news...


According to Snopes:

"The "mail" in "blackmail" has nothing to do with missives delivered by the postal service (nor does it have anything to do, as claimed in one outlandish theory, with freelance knights gone brigand whose chain mail turned to black in concert with their dark deeds)."

I'm not surprised that it has nothing to do with letters, but I am a little surprised that the "mail" of blackmail is not even related to our current word for postal service. The correspondence kind of mail actually comes from the Old French word male, which was a kind of bag or bundle. The "mail" of  blackmail comes from the Middle English male, meaning rent or tribute. (I know they look alike, but they go back to different sources.) The "mail" of armor has yet another source in the Old French maille, "link of mail, mesh of net".

There were something like black knights involved in all this, though, because it turns out the term blackmail has a very specific source. It comes from the time when English settlers along the border of Scotland paid tribute to the Scottish clans to in Snopes words, "exempt themselves and their property from pillage". The word came into the language in this way around about 1530, though the Online Etymology Dictionary has it a little later, in the 1550s. It didn't take on our present sense of a bribe exchanged for the promise of secrecy until about 1774. Again, OED places this somewhat later in 1826.

All the sources I checked do indeed have black as meaning something dark or underhanded or even evil. It's interesting, though, that there appears to be a distinction between blackmail and silver mail, with silver mail, or "white rent" being payment in money, while blackmail was paid in goods or services. And perhaps the most interesting thing to me was the one alternative derivation of the word proposed by Charles McKay in his Dictionary of Lowland Scots. He thought the black of blackmail came from blathaich, which was pronounced bla-ich and meant "to protect". In other words, protection money.

I'm not an etymologist, but I wouldn't rule that idea altogether out. It makes sense to me that the Scottish chieftain would have a euphemistic term for their racket, just as the Mafia did, and also that the farmer tribute payers would hear the "black" in blackmail rather sooner than later...

Border Reivers Raid at Gilnockie Tower, G. Cattermole


  1. A ponderer, not a chunterer.

    Male for bag or bundle had fortuitously rich associations with evil. And then there's greenmail.

  2. Ponder would be a good one to ponder, Collagemama.

  3. I haven't looked up chunterer yet, Peter, so I am not in a position to comment. However I did look up greenmail. Unfortunately I have never been in a position to practice it. Maybe it should actually be a new Greenpeace strategy.

  4. The word does indeed have a marvelous history, Kathleen, although maybe not so marvelous for those border farmers.