The Herald - - OPINION -


The ori­gins of the term black­mail is Scots and the Dic­tionary of the

Scots Lan­guage ( in­forms us that black­mail is now used in Stan­dard English ‘to mean any kind of pay­ment ex­torted by in­tim­i­da­tion or pres­sure’.

The term is made up from black plus Scots mail or meal which meant “rent, pay­ment in money or kind made un­der lease”. Black­mail or black­meal, as it was orig­i­nally coined, ba­si­cally meant pro­tec­tion money. In 1771 T Pen­nant in A Tour in Scot­land ob­served: “A con­tri­bu­tion called the black meal, was raised by sev­eral of these plun­der­ing chief­tains, over a vast ex­tent of coun­try: who­ever payed it had their cat­tle en­sured, but those who dared to refuse were sure to suf­fer.”

Al­though this was thought by some to be mostly a Bor­ders ac­tiv­ity en­gaged upon by the no­to­ri­ous Bor­ders Reivers the Sta­tis­ti­cal Ac­count of Scot­land records the fol­low­ing in­for­ma­tion from Perthshire: “Oblig­ing the in­hab­i­tants to pay them, Black Meal, as it is called, to save their prop­erty from be­ing plun­dered.”

When law and or­der even­tu­ally put an end to the Scots’ habit of plun­der­ing and reiv­ing, the term was still remembered his­tor­i­cally as in this ex­am­ple from the Aberdeen Free Press of Oc­to­ber 9, 1886: “How­ever, it would have been very easy when lead­ing the horse up a stiff, lonely brae for a band of ruf­fi­ans to have jumped from be­hind some bank and de­manded black-mail.”

The word “black­mail” was orig­i­nally a Scot­tish term. It was de­rived from the Gaelic word, “mail” mean­ing rent or sub­sidy.

Scots Word of the Week is writ­ten by Ann Fer­gu­son of Scot­tish Lan­guage Dic­tionar­ies, www.scots­dic­tionar­ies.

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