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Origin of the word Blackmail - Little Surprise
3108    Dibyendu Banerjee    01/03/2018

Origin of the Term Black Mail

We are aware that, Blackmailing is a punishable offence and it mainly means to illegally exhort money or something else of value from a person or persons by threatening to expose some secret information that will harm the concerned person or persons in many ways. However, the word blackmail does not have any connection with a mail or the postal system.

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Actually, blackmail has its roots in the early 16th century, first used by the English farmers living on the border of England and Scotland. It is derived from the Middle English word “male” which in turn is thought to be derived from the Old English word ‘mal’. In the Old English ‘mal’ is expounded as, ‘lawsuit, terms, bargaining, agreement’. Gradually, the word ‘mal’ is changed to ‘male’, which in the Middle English roughly translated to either ‘rent’ or ‘tribute’. As such, the rent paid by a farmer living on the Scottish border was known as ‘silver rent/mail’ because it was normally paid in silver or coin. Later, it gave birth to ‘white money’ or ‘white rent’, and eventually ‘white mail’.

blackmail

It is also said that, the word actually comes from the Scottish 'mail', meaning ‘tax’ or ‘rent’. In fact, in the early days of the 16th and part of the 17th century, the area along the border between England and Scotland was not really protected by the officials on either side. Time and again the landholders were afflicted not only by the robbers and plunderers, but also by their own clan leaders. However, they were assured that in return for a lump sum payment, they would be saved from any type of unwanted raids. In other words, they claimed a protection fee from the worried landowners to avoid the inevitable harassments.

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In Scotland, during those days, payment of ‘mail’ or rent was customarily referred to as "silver" or "white", when paid in coins. However, instead of payment in coins (known as silver or white mail), the robbers usually preferred payment in cattle or grain. Hence, this type of payment came to be called ‘black mail’, where ‘black’ stood for the ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ in the system. This evil custom persisted until the mid-18th century and the sense of evil was further expanded by 1826, to mean any type of extortion by means of unlawful intimidation, especially by threat of exposure or scandal.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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Sri Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa
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