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Q: Why Is It Called “Blackmail?”

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A: The first blackmailers were Scottish landlords who exploited farmers by making them pay rent in livestock or services if they couldn’t pay in cash. Unfortunately for them, the goods they had to hand over were usually worth more than the rent owed, and the landlords didn’t make change.

Around the same time, however, local chieftains started going after the same farmers with the kind of scheme the mafia usually refers to as “selling insurance.” They made an offer the farmers couldn’t refuse: protection for a fee. If the farmers didn’t pay, then the chieftains would unfortunately be unable to prevent ruffians from destroying crops and sacking property.

A raw deal to say the least, the Scottish farmers referred to both types of those situations as “black” because they associated it with the color with evil. They also called it black because both payments were made in goods rather than silver coins (called “white money”). As for the “mail” part, it doesn’t refer to the postal system. That “mail” comes from the German word for “pouch.” The “mail” in the black mail is related to the Old Norse word for “payment” or “agreement.”

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  • http://www.booklinker.blogspot.com Deano

    Mail is also believed to have derived from “meal” – fodder for animals, as I understand it. The term arose in the Anglo-Scottish border country, an area rife with cross-border raids, theft (mostly cattle) and blood feuds. Blackmail was the money or goods paid as “shake-down” by border reivers and also for protection services from your own “side”. For a good account of the terminology and the bloody escapades of the Anglo-Scottish border country, read George MacDonald Fraser’s book The Steel Bonnets…

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    I never realized how much blackmail is like curling.

    Invented by the Scots, perfected by the Canadians.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Just because it needs to be said:

    This is a really neat feature on BC.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    The magazine is excellent, too. If you love this feature, I’m telling you, you’ll love the magazine. I used to pick it up in Barnes & Noble every now and then, but now I have a subscription.

  • http://www.mentalfloss.com Will from mental_floss

    Thanks guys! Did my mom put you up to saying such nice things?

  • Dawn

    So glad I am not the only one who appreciates these gems of erudite goodness.

  • http://bonamassablog.us Joan Hunt

    I must admit this has become one of my favorite series to follow! I love bits of trivia and my strange little mind thanks you for adding to the many things I really have no right remembering.

  • http://www.mentalfloss.com Will from mental_floss

    Thanks Joan and Dawn!

  • mike

    white are going to always hate or dislike blacks