mary mccord: Can you tell me the origin of the word "blackmail"?

Dan Stalker: The term Blackmail is a Scottish term and relates back to the black cattle that were common in the Scottish Highlands. These cattle were bartered and used as money, exactly how we got to todays definition of Blackmail I am not sure. One thing I am sure about is that the famous highland regiment 'The Black Watch' was originally set up as a police force to prevent the black cattle being rustled, hence the name - The Black Watch.
A bit more information on the topic. Mail is an old word meaning rent,so blackmail was originally rent paid by the use of black cattle instead of cash. Perhaps landlords became increasingly greedy and undervalued the cattle thereby pushing the blackmail up under threats of eviction if it was not paid. This could well lead to todays meaning of blackmail as a 'payment under duress or threat'. Sounds plausible.

Terry O'Connor: Ernest Weekley says the rent ("mail") paid by Scottish farmers to freebooters was often paid with black cattle. The so-called rent was actually extortion, hence blackmail came to mean other forms of extortion. Weekley also says that the Black Watch were so-named because they were raised in the 18th century for service in the Highlands and were given a dark uniform to distinguish them from the "old" army.

White rabbit: dagger money is another contemporary scottish term which could also be related to the practice of demanding cattle with menaces practiced by familys on both sides of the border for many years.

Return to the Archive Index
Return to the Word for Word articles
Return to the BrisMail Home page