Blackmail derives from the old practice of clan chieftains who ran protection rackets against farmers in the Scottish-English border counties. If the farmers did not pay the mail, the chiefs would steal their crops and cattle. This sense of mail is from Old English meaning rent or tribute and ultimately comes from the Old Icelandic mál, meaning speech or agreement. (This is one of those Old English words introduced by Viking raiders.) This sense is unrelated to other senses of mail and is now obsolete except for its use in blackmail.

The black either comes from the evil connotation of this practice, or from the fact that this “rent” was usually paid in goods, like cattle, as opposed to silver coin, known as white money.

The opening scene of the 1995 movie Rob Roy depicts this practice. The hero, Rob Roy MacGregor, has accepted protection money for the lord’s cattle. He therefore is out hunting men who have stolen some of the cattle under his protection. Later in the movie he admits to having stolen cattle himself, but never cattle that were under his “protection.” Proving once again that there is honor among thieves, or at least among those of the heroic, Hollywood variety.

The earliest citation of blackmail in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Archbishop John Hamilton’s Catechism of 1552:

Quhay takis ouer sair mail, ouer mekle ferme, or ony blake maillis, fra thair tennands, or puttis thair cottaris to ouir sair labouris, quhair throw the tenentis and cottaris is put to herschip.
(Whoever takes too much mail, too great farm rent, or any blackmail, from their tenants, or puts their peasants to too much labor, where the tenants and peasants are thrown into ruin.)

The modern sense of any type of extortion money dates to sometime before 1826. It appears in Bishop Reginald Heber’s Narrative of a Journey Through The Upper Provinces of India from that year:

The country is burdened with a crowd of lazy, profligate, self-called suwarrs, who...obtain for the most part a precarious livelihood by spunging [sic] on the industrious tradesmen and farmers, on whom they levy a sort of “black-mail.”

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories.)

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