Origin of the word blackmail

To blackmail somebody is to exhort money or something else of value from them by the threat of exposing information that will harm them in many ways. Blackmailing is a punishable offence.

We all know that the word mail is used to talk about materials handled in a postal system. Interestingly, the expression ‘blackmail’ has nothing to do with letters or the postal system. So how did the word ‘blackmail’ originate? Well, here is the story.

Origin of ‘blackmail’

The word blackmail comes from the Scottish ‘mail’. In Scottish English this word used to mean ‘tax’ or ‘rent’. In the olden days, the law and order situation in Scotland wasn’t very good. It wasn’t good in other countries, too. Because of poor enforcement of law farmers living along the borders of Scotland suffered at the hands of criminal gangs. These gangs would rob them and get away with little punishment. Poor farmers were incapable of fighting these looters. So they chose to pay them off. They would make some payment in exchange for protection and immunity from plunder.

In those days the usual modes of payment were cattle, grains and copper coins. These were considered black. And this system of exhorting money from poor farmers was called ‘blackmail’. It means ‘black tax’ or ‘black rent’. If a farmer chose to pay in silver coins, then it was called ‘white mail’.