Posted in Book Talk

Word Origins: was blackmail ever actually black?

Hey y’all! I promise I haven’t been up to anything shady, but blackmail has been on my mind. This is one of those words where I wonder what degree of literal it ever accomplished. Was it at some point actually black?

I’m imagining an elegant black envelope with a formal seal on it, where just the sight alone would terrify the postmaster delivering it for knowledge of the grim contents inside! And the shame of receiving one, for who would be blackmailed if they were a holy and upstanding citizen? The secret they carry is bad enough for another to extort them!

Origins of “blackmail”

When did it first get used?

What does it mean?
Currently, this is demanding payment or another benefit from someone in return for not revealing compromising or damaging information about them.

In the past, though, it was more like protection money from thugs and ruffians. Today’s meaning has some elegance and effort: I search and listen and carefully find some secret information that another may not want to be public knowledge, then quietly tell them I KNOW and demand money to keep the secret.

The old meaning was more akin to “pay me money or I’ll beat you up.” Any sense of intimidation to get your way, essentially! Ah, the civility of modern extortion.

What did it come from?
Okay, well… unfortunately the first part of the word is not what I had hoped. It’s only metaphorically black. Because it’s evil to do something like that to a person. Apparently. However, I like to think that there are others who wanted to add a little flair to their evil-doing and made it less subtle for their victims. I’m thinking something like the black hand sigil of the Dark Brotherhood.

The second word actually held a surprise, largely because I thought “mail” was pretty straightforward. While I did think it would be odd to send your (illegal) extortion request and the information that gives you power over another through a public channel such as the post office, I was willing to let that go. Criminals are weird, I don’t know! Evidently though, the word “mail” here had a lot of history and change.

From current to oldest:
mail (postage) –> male (middle english, rent or tribute) –> mal (old english, lawsuit, bargain) –> mal (Norse, speech or agreement).

This tracks with the older meaning of people essentially in a gang that demanded money from farmers and tradesmen in return for not breaking their stuff and beating them up and just taking the money anyway. This actually has a few more degrees back, but I think that makes my point! This was originally such a normal and inoffensive element, suddenly made sinister by the blackness appended up front.


Reader, traveler, photographer, and always looking to learn!

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