This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Sunday Rest: blackmail. Word Not To Use Today.

'Blackmail?' said the villain, twitching a suave but deadly eyebrow. 'That's an ugly word.'

Despite those words having being spoken in almost every thriller made during the first thirty years of talkies, blackmail isn't a particularly ugly word.

Blackmail is certainly an ugly thing, but that's a different thing.

Mind you, blackmail used to be a different thing, too.

Blackmail started out in life as protection money. It was paid by the people of the English/Scottish Borders to the reivers in return for immunity from raids.

(Those riders are reivers on their way to raid a mediaeval family that hadn't paid its blackmail. I don't know where they are, not even which country they're in, because reivers were equally happy to raid homesteads on either side of the border.)

Anyway, why is it blackmail black? Well, the reason it's black is because it's not white. The white equivalent, 'white rent', was paid in money (silver); blackmail was paid in goods or labour.

Why is it mail? Male was the Middle English for rent or tribute.

So there we are. A shared culture of English and Scots criminality extending over hundreds of years.

Surely that's worth holding onto.

Isn't it?

Word Not To Use Today: blackmail. If the word isn't derived as I've described above then it might be from the Scottish Gaelic words blathaich to protect and mal tribute, payment.


  1. I think the concept of blackmail is really funny. Consider:

    Taking photos of you, Sally Prue, on a date with Brad Pitt and selling them to the Daily Mail isn't illegal

    Asking you for £1,000,000 isn't illegal

    But woah! If I combine those two activities, suddenly I'm neither paparazzi nor a friend in need, but a downright dirty blackmailer!

    Personally, I prefer the word 'chantage', which is blackmail, but it's not as ugly.

    1. You've got the Brad Pitt photos?
      Not the ones with the elephant, Michael Gambon, and the frying pan??
      Good grief. You know, that was such a good night I don't even remember it.
      Chantage is a beautiful word I didn't know. Thanks, Eddie.

    2. Click here to see my post on it. It was one of my favourite C words.

    3. Thanks again, Eddie. I must somehow have missed that post.