Etymology notes on a scandal
In the wake of the Petraeus affair, words nerds want to know the derivation of the term 'blackmail.'
Inquiring minds want to know, perhaps because they've been reading about the Petraeus scandal: What's the origin of the word "blackmail"?
The idea of a public official having to resign because moral missteps may have left him vulnerable to blackmail may seem quaint. But so it has played out in the case of the military hero who became entangled with his biographer. Even the pundits who might in principle argue that a public man is entitled to a private life acknowledge that the case of a CIA director is different.
But enough of scandal. Let's get on to the word stuff. Why do we call it "blackmail," anyway?
It's the kind of word literal-minded children glom onto and invent explanations for: "Hmm, it must be something like sending someone a letter in a black envelope."
The metaphor behind blackmail is an "evil agreement." The word goes back to the 1550s. The mail was originally male, a Middle English word meaning rent or tribute, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Before male there was an Old English word mal, meaning lawsuit, terms, bargaining, or agreement.
Mal had many word relatives among the Germanic languages, referring to ideas of "meeting" or coming together. Blackmail, you might say, meant making a deal with the devil. The first blackmailers were "freebooting clan chieftains who ran protection rackets against Scottish farmers," the Online Etymology Dictionary explains.
By the 1820s, the term had expanded to refer to any kind of extortion. That more familiar sense of mail ("Has the mail come today?") derives from another root altogether, an Old French word meaning bag or bundle.