Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. Extortion of money or something else of value from a person by the threat of exposing a criminal act or discreditable information.
  • n. Something of value extorted in this manner.
  • n. Tribute formerly paid to freebooters along the Scottish border for protection from pillage.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. A certain rate of money, corn, cattle, or other thing, anciently paid, in the north of England and south of Scotland, to certain men who were allied to robbers, or moss troopers, to be by them protected from pillage.
  • n. Payment of money exacted by means of intimidation; also, extortion of money from a person by threats of public accusation, exposure, or censure.
  • n. Black rent, or rent paid in corn, flesh, or the lowest coin, a opposed to white rent, which paid in silver.
  • v. To extort money from by exciting fears of injury other than bodily harm, such as injury to reputation, distress of mind, false accusation, etc.; as, to blackmail a merchant by threatening to expose an alleged fraud.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • n. A certain rate of money, corn, cattle, or other thing, anciently paid, in the north of England and south of Scotland, to certain men who were allied to robbers, or moss troopers, to be by them protected from pillage.
  • n. Payment of money exacted by means of intimidation; also, extortion of money from a person by threats of public accusation, exposure, or censure.
  • n. Black rent, or rent paid in corn, flesh, or the lowest coin, a opposed to “white rent”, which paid in silver.
  • transitive v. To extort money from by exciting fears of injury other than bodily harm, as injury to reputation, distress of mind, etc..

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • n. A tribute of money, corn, cattle, or the like, anciently paid, in the north of England and in Scotland, to men who were allied with robbers, to secure protection from pillage.
  • n. Hence Extortion in any mode by means of intimidation, as the extortion of money by threats of accusation or exposure, or of unfavorable criticism in the press.
  • n. Rent paid in produce, or in baser money, in opposition to rent paid in silver.
  • To extort money or goods from, by means of intimidation or threats of injury of any kind, as exposure of actual or supposed wrong-doing, etc. See the noun.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • n. extortion of money by threats to divulge discrediting information
  • v. exert pressure on someone through threats
  • v. obtain through threats

Etymologies

black + mail3.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
From black + mail ("a piece of money"). (Wiktionary)

Examples

Comments

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  • Demanding money by threats, especially to expose secrets.

    This looks weird because we no longer know the relevant meaning of the second part. It has nothing to do with mail delivered by the postal carrier, which is from Old French male, for a wallet (the word transferred from the pouch carried by a messenger to the things carried in the pouch). Nor is it linked to the chain mail of medieval knights; this comes from Latin macula for a spot or mesh, referring to the individual metal bits of the mail. (So blackmail, despite what you sometimes read, has nothing to do with medieval knights’ chain mail turning black as ghastly retribution for dishonourable deeds.)

    The mail in blackmail (at various times also spelled maill, male and in other ways) is an old Scots word for rent. This was usually paid in what was often called white money, silver coins. It comes from Old Norse mal, meaning an agreement, later a contract, and then the payment specified by the contract.

    In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries chieftains in the highlands of Scotland and along the border between Scotland and England ran protection rackets in which they threatened farmers with pillage and worse if they didn’t pay up. This amounted to an informal tax or extra rent and the farmers, with twisted humour, thought of it as the opposite of the legitimate white money or white mail that they paid. Black has for many centuries been associated with the dark side of human activities, hence blackmail.

    The term was extended in the nineteenth century to other ways of extorting money with menaces, and in particular to the threat of exposing a person’s secrets.
    (from World Wide Words)

    May 21, 2008