Dave Wilton of has a new Big List post about the word blackmail, to whose etymology I don’t recall giving any thought. Dave writes:

The mail in blackmail is unrelated to either a type of armor or the postal service. It comes from the Old Norse mali meaning contract or payment. This use of mail, meaning a payment, appears in Scots from the late fourteenth century. The black probably comes from the unsavory nature of the practice.

Blackmail was first used to refer to protection rackets run by Scottish clan chieftains against farmers in their territory. If the farmers did not pay the mail, the chiefs would steal their crops and cattle. The earliest record of the practice that I’m aware of is from the trial of one, Adam Scot, who was beheaded in 1530 for blackmailing the people of the Scottish-English border counties […] Eventually, blackmail generalized to refer to obtaining payment through threat of force.

His “mali” should be máli, with an accent to show the long vowel; the OED (updated June 2000) has a fuller etymology s.v. mail, n.¹:

Etymology: < early Scandinavian: compare Old Icelandic mál speech, agreement (probably a contracted form (like Middle Low German māl meeting) of the Germanic word which appears as Old English mæðel discussion, meeting: see mallum n.), although in sense the English word corresponds more to the derivative represented by Old Icelandic máli contract, stipulation, stipulated pay.
Uncompounded, the word has survived only in Scots and in northern dialects, and hence its phonetic form is northern and its spelling Scots; the southern form, witnessed by quots. a1200 at main sense, ?a1300 at main sense, survived down to the 17th cent. in the compound molland n.

Now Scottish and historical.

Payment, tax, tribute, rent. In O.E. also: †agreement, deal (obsolete). mails and duties: the rents of an estate. Cf. blackmail n.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Quoth wikipedia: “Alternatively, Mackay derives it from two Scottish Gaelic words blathaich pronounced (the th silent) bla-ich (to protect) and mal (tribute, payment), cf. buttock mail. He notes that the practice was common in the Scottish Highlands as well as the Borders. In the Irish language, the term cíos dubh, meaning “black-rent”, has also been employed.”

    I suppose “mal” could be a “Gaelic” word as a loanword borrowed from Norse either directly or via Scots?

    Wilton’s piece seems oddly unclear in its failure to specify that the comparatively late-in-development “sense of obtaining payment [or other benefit, I would add] by threatening to publish scandalous information about someone” has now (almost?) completely crowded out all other senses. Or is that only an AmEng phenomenon, with the broader sense that would cover “extortion via threat of breaking kneecaps or damaging ones property” still current elsewhere?

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve often (well, occasionally) wondered just how chantage came to mean “blackmail.” Wiktionary just says it’s from chanter, which is not very illuminating.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, I suppose … “make sing” -> “make a criminal talk under pressure” –> “make somebody give in to coercion” -> “blackmail.” I’d still sneer at the semantic latitude it if sing/blackmail were presented as part of one supposed etymon in a proto-Afroasiatic dictionary. Just goes to show …

  4. Trond Engen says

    How do we know it’s from máli and not mál? The former has a pretty narrow legalistic definition “contract, agreement”, while the latter is more common and used in the same senses, but also with additional senses that would make ‘blackmail’ straightforward, even compositional.

    From Norrøn ordbok e.g.
    (my ad hoc translation and digestion):

    3. case, errand 8. speech 10. story, tale 12. opinion, postulation 13. statement

  5. How do we know it’s from máli and not mál?

    It’s not; máli is presented as a sidelight: “although in sense the English word corresponds more to the derivative represented by Old Icelandic máli.”

    Oh, wait, you’re referring to Dave’s post. Good point; I’ll mention it in the discussion thread over there.

  6. Trond Engen says

    Yes and no. I believe I read the OED entry the same way as Dave Wilton, i.e. “on the one hand, look at this word; on the other, this derivative fits better”. What I really disagree with is:

    in sense the English word corresponds more to the derivative represented by Old Icelandic máli.

  7. One can see how the semantics widen to extortion in general; perhaps the subsequent semantic contraction to threatening-to-reveal-a-secret was aided by a misconstrual of “black mail” as meaning something like “threatening letter”.

    There is also an archaic, sense of blackmail, dating to the seventeenth century, referring to rent or other payments that are made in something other than silver coin, such as cattle or labor — is this sense clearly separated from the extortion sense? In Ireland the “black rent” was usually cattle rather than cash.

  8. John Cowan says

    I’ve always assumed that the meanings of modern blackmail were derived from the ‘non-pecuniary payment’ sense: gimme your cattle, or you’ll be sorry!

  9. David Marjanović says

    …huh. I took “threatening letter” for granted.

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